The two things that will determine Netanyahu’s fate

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem February 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun - RC1A7487E850
Editor's note:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing his toughest challenge yet, writes Natan Sachs. The Israeli police recommended Tuesday that he be charged with bribery in two separate criminal cases. His political career is not over, but he is entering a major, perhaps final battle for political survival. This piece originally appeared in The Atlantic.

Israeli politics generally follow Ecclesiastes: Nothing is terribly new under the sun. Twenty-one years ago, in early 1997, the Israeli police announced its recommendation that Benjamin Netanyahu, then a 47-year-old first-term prime minister, be criminally indicted for breach of public trust. That case involved the appointment of an attorney general who, police suspected, Netanyahu believed would be lenient in another legal case against a key political player in his coalition (later convicted of and imprisoned for bribery).

The affair damaged Netanyahu publicly; it added to a growing air of impropriety and disregard for public norms that tarnished his first term in office, but Netanyahu was not indicted in 1997. In Israeli procedure it is the justice department, and ultimately the attorney general, who send people to court; the national police can merely issue recommendations when concluding an investigation. The attorney general in 1997—a well respected jurist beyond suspicion—decided that the case was too weak for trial. Nor did the police recommendation alone cause Netanyahu’s coalition partners to leave the government or go to new elections. And so, the 1997 police recommendation notwithstanding, Netanyahu survived politically and continued to serve until 1999, when he was defeated in the ballot box.

Now the 68-year-old four-term prime minister faces a far stronger criminal threat than in 1997. In fact, Netanyahu is facing his toughest challenge yet. The Israeli police recommended Tuesday that he be charged with bribery in two separate criminal cases. His political career is not over, but he is entering a major, perhaps final battle for political survival. Two factors will determine his fate: the reaction of Netanyahu’s coalition partners and the public’s reaction in the next elections (due no later than the fall of 2019).

His political career is not over, but he is entering a major, perhaps final battle for political survival.

The first case currently investigated, known as Case 1000, involves a longstanding Netanyahu household practice of receiving regular gifts from a small set of multi-millionaires, some with business interests in Israel. Netanyahu does not dispute the fact that for many years he and his wife Sara received hundreds of thousands of shekels’ worth of cigars and rosé champagne, in a regular flow, sometimes upon request. “Receiving gifts from friends is not forbidden” is the Netanyahu public defense. But champagne and cigars, Israeli legal experts claim, are legally equivalent to cash, and a previous Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has already been sent to jail for similar offenses involving cash, among other misdeeds.

Case 1000 is not what would generally count as earth-shattering corruption in most countries. The sums in this case were relatively small for such a powerful man, even if the practice lasted for years. Normatively it stinks, legally the police believe it is clearly verboten, yet it is not quite the stuff of public outrage; Netanyahu’s lifestyle is not news in and of itself. Still, Israel is lucky to have a severe standard for the law when it comes to public figures. And more than anything, the case reflects the widespread perception that the Netanyahu family enjoys the good life just a little too much for public servants, and often disregards norms and perhaps even the law in pursuit of perks. Netanyahu, in this regard, ushered in an age of leaders who didn’t espouse the modest, even austere image of the early-day Israeli leaders.  

The second current case, known as Case 2000, involves the media, and it is in many ways far more troubling. Netanyahu has been media-focused and media-savvy, more than any other Israeli leader. His star initially rose on the national political stage when, as a deputy minister, he was the main spokesperson of the Israeli delegation to the Madrid peace conference of 1991. He was armed with perfect English, a baritone voice, and an American style of speaking, replete with well-crafted sound-bites, visual gimmicks, and—a novelty in 1990s Israel—an interest in the minutiae of interviews: how to apply makeup and which camera angle to choose for best effect. He seemed then to be part of a wave of young, attractive American-style politicians around the democratic world, such as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schroder, even if ideologically he was much closer to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl. Over the decades, he has paid a great deal of attention to message management, and, increasingly, to management of the media itself.

From his first race for the top spot in 1996, Netanyahu felt that the “hostile media” hated him. He repeatedly lashed out at a liberal clique that he and many others felt ran the press—the Israeli version of the “mainstream liberal media.” He battled them, cajoled them, flirted with them, railed against them, and in general obsessed over them. In 2007, however, something dramatic changed. The main newspapers in Israel suddenly found themselves outmatched in their own game: a new publication, Israel Hayom (“Israel Today”) appeared on Israeli streets. Rather than a hostile tone toward Netanyahu, Israel Hayom (also known as the Bibi-paper) propagated an adoring tone toward Netanyahu and his family, and a hostile one toward Olmert, the center, and the left. Israel Hayom’s cover price was unbeatable: 0.00 shekels.

For past content on politics in and policy toward the Middle East, check out the Markaz blog.Israel Hayom is not a regular newspaper: It does not fund itself primarily through ads (though those are sold) or subscriptions (the paper is free) but by the bankrolling of the owner, American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a major donor to conservative causes, including the Trump presidential campaign. Adelson’s casino-earned wealth is such that no operating loss in the Israeli paper market could cause a dent; this is, critics have claimed, merely a form of political contribution in the guise of press. Israel Hayom hotly disputes this, of course; political contributions are regulated in Israel, and if it were deemed one, Israel Hayom would be illegal in its current form.

No one suffered more from the entry of Israel Hayom than the old papers, chief among them Yediot Ahronot. The Israeli public took up the free publication; when Netanyahu became prime minister Israel Hayom also adopted a positive, optimistic tone about the direction of the country, and all this at no financial cost to the reader. It became the mostly widely read publication, dethroning Yediot Ahronot after many years, and causing havoc throughout the press scene.

Case 2000 surrounds a shocking revelation: a tape recording unearthed in a separate investigation of apparent negotiations between Netanyahu and the publisher of Yediot Ahronot. The purported deal was a detente between the two warring factions: the publisher, Noni Mozes, would provide more favorable coverage for Netanyahu in his paper, and Netanyahu would limit the circulation of the competitor Israel Hayom to weekdays, leaving the lucrative weekend editions to Yediot Ahronot. Netanyahu has claimed that he was just bluffing; there was no real quid-pro-quo, merely a proof of precisely what Netanyahu had been saying all these years: The media moguls were out to get him, to the degree that they could negotiate the political tone of their supposedly-professional publications. Moreover, all agree, the deal never came to fruition. Israel Hayom does now appear on weekends. Yet, the police claim, Netanyahu was not bluffing; he convened parliamentarians to see what legislation might be promoted to limit his own ally publication and looked into implementing the deal. He was, they claim, conspiring to use his official position to the benefit of a commercial entity in exchange for a political favor. If a correct interpretation of the facts, that is bribery.

The sordid business of the ownership of the media has plagued Israeli politics. In 2015, for example, Netanyahu surprised the political system and called for new elections, just two years into his third term. He blamed the snap election on an inability to work with his coalition partners, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni. The real reason for the elections, many claimed, was Netanyahu’s attempt to shield Israel Hayom and stop what was known as “the Israel Hayom bill” that would prohibit the free distribution of newspapers on the grounds that it is akin to dumping and unfair competition. Needless to say, Yediot Ahronot  and its publisher Mozes were quite enthusiastic about the bill; Netanyahu and Sheldon Adelson were not. After he won the elections of 2015, Netanyahu appointed himself minister of communications, making sure he could keep a close leash on media affairs. And indeed, Netanyahu has now publicly acknowledged that the “Israel Hayom bill” (not Iran, or the Palestinians, or economic affairs) was the reason for calling the elections—proof, he says, of the absurdity of the accusations against him that he tried to limit Israel Hayom’s circulation on Mozes’s behalf.

Now, just as in 1997, Netanyahu may yet evade indictment, though it would be harder to justify today. Like in 1997, the damage in terms of public image could nevertheless be severe. In the short term, the ball is now in the court of his coalition partners. Should they—Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (all of different parties within his coalition)—leave, he would face new elections. (This is what happened to his predecessor Olmert, who lost support from his coalition partners on the left following a corruption investigation.) They are unlikely to leave at present. The safest path for them would be to wait for a decision on an indictment, something that could take months, before making a move.

Should Netanyahu be indicted, pressure to resign would grow. Some members of his own party would hope that he resign without an election, meaning that one of them would replace him temporarily. But Netanyahu may not resign even then. He may point to the letter of Israeli law, which does not require a prime minister’s resignation until conviction (despite precedent to the contrary), and he may try to head his own Likud party in a new election campaign. Opposition leaders, such as former finance minister Yair Lapid, or the leader of the Labor Party, Avi Gabbay, would then hope for elections surrounding the issue of corruption, in which they could come in to clean the stables and drain the swamp.

The string of corruption cases in the past two decades have brought a new a level of shamelessness to Israeli political life.

Israelis, like people everywhere, often have a nostalgic and unrealistic view of past leaders. Back in the “good old days,” those close to power often got their way just like they do today, or worse, and those who did not belong to the proper circles had little chance of breaking in. In recent years the criminal system has been far more aggressive in combating corruption at the highest levels—in itself a sign of health, not illness, though the corruption is certainly there.

Israelis are correct, however, that the string of corruption cases in the past two decades have brought a new a level of shamelessness to Israeli political life. In 1977, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin resigned over what would seem like an utter triviality even compared to rosé champagne. Rabin had previously served as Israeli ambassador in Washington, and his wife, Leah, had kept open a relatively small dollar bank account. The account was legal while they served in DC, but once they returned to Israel, Israeli law (as it was then) prohibited citizens from holding foreign accounts. Rabin resigned from office, stating that he would not hide behind his wife’s back, and the Likud party (which Netanyahu now heads) came to power for the first time. Netanyahu will not go so easily, no matter the charges or evidence. If his term ends in the coming year it will be because he is forced to: most likely his partners eventually force him to resign, or the voting public opts for someone holding a broom.