Netanyahu on the ropes

Benjamin Netanyahu

Even though he is a suspect in a slew of cases involving bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the other day given a hero’s welcome at a Likud Party rally in Tel Aviv. That’s what Netanyahu and Likud are betting on: That the Israeli public will rally around him, and that, even if the investigations move forward with an indictment on any one of the charges, he can at least win in the court of public opinion. But many wonder if this strong show of force can be sustained under the weight of such a large number of criminal charges.

Police have questioned Netanyahu four times during these months-long investigations. One case, known as Case 1000, involves allegations concerning inappropriate acceptance of gifts from businessmen. In the other, Case 2000, Netanyahu is alleged to have colluded with a newspaper owner to have negative coverage of him toned down. In exchange, Netanyahu allegedly assured the owner that the circulation of a rival paper would be reduced.

In possibly the most serious case, Netanyahu, so far, is not a suspect. His personal attorney of nearly four decades, David Shimron, who is another former chief of staff, is suspected of taking bribes in return for facilitating the sale of German submarines and warships to the Israeli navy. The purchase was reportedly expensive and unnecessary. The question is whether Netanyahu knew about the involvement of Shimron in mediating and promoting these deals between the German shipbuilder and Israel’s defense establishment. If he did know, it would pose a very serious conflict of interest even before the possibility that Netanyahu was promised financial compensation is investigated.

The basis for this conflict of interest is the fact that Netanyahu actively promoted huge deals involving the German shipbuilder. He pushed to acquire three new Dolphin-class submarines, against the advice of the Israeli navy and the defense establishment at large, while attempting to retract an international tender to provide Israel with four patrol boats to protect Israel’s gas platforms in the Mediterranean.

Even if he somehow manages to steer clear of being linked directly to the affair, it will be hard to find any Israeli who believes that Netanyahu would promote deals worth billions of dollars without him knowing that the deal was being mediated by his close confidante and cousin (Shimron and Netanyahu are related), who also represented one of the parties involved.

Netanyahu has hit back at Israel’s opposition and media, accusing them of trying to overthrow his premiership with fake news and describing the accusations as background noise.

Should Netanyahu be forced to step down, the peace process might not be the worse for wear. He was never going to be the father of an agreement. It is difficult to imagine that he’d ever agree to anything close to the current Palestinian narrative. Still he is not the most anti-Palestinian in his coalition; waiting in the wings as possible successors are right wingers like Education Minister Naftali Bennett, much tougher than Netanyahu on Palestinian statehood.

Netanyahu says he will fight indictment but any decision to bring criminal charges would make it politically difficult for him to stay in power.

When the investigations conclude, police will hand the matter over to the attorney general. It will be up to him to decide whether to follow any recommendation to indict Netanyahu. The decision is likely several months away.

Netanyahu is in his fourth term and stands to become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, surpassing David Ben-Gurion. That’s if he survives in the post into 2019. The most current assessment is that elections will not be held as scheduled, and will have to be moved up to the start of next year.