Israel's Netanyahu may weather corruption allegations for now, but the storm is brewing

Wednesday , February 14, 2018 - 12:25 PM

Loveday Morris and Ruth Eglash

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

JERUSALEM - If Benjamin Netanyahu survives until the end of his current term, he will become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. But now the question is: Can he make it?

During more than a decade as Israel’s leader, Netanyahu has gained a Teflon reputation, slipping through many political storms. But he has come face to face with his biggest challenge yet: accusations that he allegedly received around $280,000 in gifts in return for political favors, while also making a secret pact with an Israeli publisher for favorable coverage.

On Tuesday, Israeli police said enough evidence exists to charge Netanyahu in two corruption cases and formally recommended his indictment. The case how shifts to Israel’s attorney general to decide whether to proceed with charges.

The more immediate test is whether Netanyahu can hold together his six-party right-wing coalition - which showed little sign of crumbling Wednesday.

His coalition partners said they would stay united while Israel’s attorney general decides whether to proceed with charges. Meanwhile, his own party has also rallied to his support, for the moment at least.

Netanyahu has also made clear that he does not plan to resign, and he is under no legal obligation to do so unless he is convicted. On Wednesday, he slammed the police recommendation as biased, extreme and full of holes. He has mocked the assertion that he would perform political favors for alleged gifts such as cigars and champagne.

Still, previous prime ministers have been brought down for less. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was forced to resign in 2008 and eventually served 16 months in jail for a real estate corruption case involving smaller sums.

Few expect Netanyahu not to fight to the bitter end. The prime minister and his wife are “addicted to power,” said Ben Caspit, the author of two books about Netanyahu, including the recently published “The Netanyahu Years.”

“He does not think he did anything wrong, and he really believes that no one else can lead Israel, and he cannot be himself anywhere else but here as the prime minister of Israel,” Caspit added.

A tough talker when it comes to Israel’s security in the volatile region, Netanyahu has presented himself as the only person capable of protecting the country. He also is seen by his backers as a safe pair of hands - an image that is likely to benefit him amid fears of a new war on Israel’s northern border as Iran expands its presence in Syria.

He reminded the public of his security credentials as he delivered a televised speech Tuesday night, mentioning his years as head of an elite commando unit and saying that he is always on call when the “red phone” rings.

“Until another party presents an alternative candidate for prime minister that can make people feel safe, then nobody is going to push to oust him,” said Gil Hoffman, a political columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper.

“People talk of his survival like he’s an injured animal,” Hoffman continued, “but he’s very successful.”

Now in his third consecutive term - and fourth overall - Netanyahu has managed to sideline political rivals. In 2016, Netanyahu’s Likud party canceled its leadership race and declared him the winner after no one challenged him.

Even since police announced last August that he was a suspect in the two cases, he has still polled as Israel’s favorite candidate for prime minister, a good 10 points ahead of his nearest rival.

Yet there is opposition.

Each week, demonstrators have gathered near Tel Aviv to call for his resignation, but they have so far failed to gain critical mass. Netanyahu’s coalition partners will be watching the anti-Netanyahu ranks and poll numbers closely, Caspit said.

Netanyahu will be “praying for a storm” on Saturday because rain will discourage demonstrations, he added.

But Hoffman said the allegations have failed to rock the public - and public opinion remains the only thing likely to bring about Netanyahu’s downfall before an indictment.

“The Israeli public thinks that all politicians are corrupt,” he said. “In Israel, there’s respect for people with elbows. He has them,” Hoffman said.

Opinion is split on just how long it will take before a decision is reached on an indictment. Hoffman predicted that Netanyahu may not be forced to call an election before next year, meaning that he would be months away from fully serving out his term.

David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel, pointed out that Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has overseen every step of the investigation, meaning that his decision may come swiftly.

Police have recommended that Netanyahu be indicted at least twice before, he said, though the previous cases have been “nowhere near as serious.”

While Netanyahu, for the moment at least, may be able to weather the upheaval over the two corruption cases - dubbed Case 1000 and Case 2000 - what really threatens to sink him is any implication that he is linked to what is known as Case 3000. This one involves corruption related to multibillion-dollar submarine deals with Germany. Members of Netanyahu’s inner circle, including his personal lawyer and cousin, have already been arrested.

After that, there is Case 4000, in which investigators are looking into favorable business dealings for the state telecom company Bezeq and circling closer to Netanyahu. If legal proceedings against him progress, his rivals may soon smell blood.

In response, Netanyahu would probably turn to his familiar strategy of populism, said Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, drawing comparisons with President Donald Trump and scandal-racked former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Netanyahu’s party is “going against the media, courts and against the intellectuals and the left,” he said. “Supposedly being for the people.”

“He will do all he can do to avoid becoming the second prime minister to go to jail,” Rahat said.

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