Bye Bye, Bibi?

Jewish Light Editorial

With a recommendation by Israeli police that corruption charges be brought against him, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing his greatest challenge yet to remaining in office. If Israeli prosecutors follow the indictment recommendations, the charges could force him to resign.

At a perilous time when Israel needs to face new military challenges without distraction, and as associates of Netanyahu are also coming under suspicion, on balance it would be best for the prime minister to step down.

Police recommended last Tuesday that Netanyahu be charged with receiving gifts from businessmen, including billionaire Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer. The police report also says that Netanyahu tried to work out a deal for favorable coverage in an Israeli newspaper in return for limiting the influence of a rival paper.   

The New York Times reported that “all told, the police accused Netanyahu of accepting nearly $300,000 in gifts dating back the past 10 years.”

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

Netanyahu has responded to the police recommendations with his customary defiance. In a televised statement, he denied the accusations, predicting that prosecutors would find them “overblown.”  He also termed the investigation a “witch hunt” and described media coverage of his legal challenges as “fake news.”

Those epithets are being thrown around a lot lately but, in this case as in many others, they don’t square with the facts. The police recommendation is real, not fake; so are the arrests over the weekend of seven people, including two close associates of Netanyahu, in the widening payments probe. 

And renewed hostilities between Israel and Syria are very real as well. The Jerusalem Post called them “the most serious attacks on either front in years.” It added that the confrontations, “with one small miscalculation, could have very easily somersaulted into another devastating conflict in the region.”

In that context, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit must decide whether to proceed with the recommended indictments against Netanyahu, who appointed Mandelblit two years ago. Mandelblit has pledged to base his decision on the law, not politics.

In his long public career, Netanyahu has served more time as Israeli prime minister than any of his predecessors except David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founder. If he manages to hold on through July, he will surpass Ben-Gurion in total time as head of Israel’s government. No doubt Netanyahu would like to be in office as Israel’s celebrates its 70th anniversary of independence on the fifth day of Iyar this spring. In the course of his long career, Netanyahu has many positive accomplishments in his record—including pushing back against the Iran nuclear deal, which he considered dangerous for the security of the Jewish State.  Some may argue that a change of prime ministers at this juncture would destabilize Israel at an especially perilous time considering the growing crisis with Hezbollah and Hamas in recent weeks.  But Israel needs a prime minister who can stay focused on security and other critical needs without the cloud of potential criminal charges being filed against him.

Former prime ministers have been charged with crimes — and in the case of Ehud Olmert, served time in prison — but Netanyahu would be the first sitting Israeli prime minister to be charged.

While there have already been calls for Netanyahu to step down, the Times notes that he has been nicknamed “Magician” for his ability to reinvent himself and stay in office by assembling coalitions. His present government is considered the most right-wing, nationalist and religious in Israel’s history.  There is no guarantee that a successor to Netanyahu would be able to cobble together a viable coalition to govern—but Israel’s democracy is resilient and it has survived previous instances of leaders resigning.

Netanyahu’s latest tenure was marked by constant tension with former President Barack Obama. The two leaders neither liked nor trusted each other. Netanyahu has cultivated a more positive relationship with President Donald Trump and praised Trump profusely for his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.  There is no indication that Trump’s pro-Israel stance would change if he had to deal with a new Israeli prime minister.

In a poll conducted in Israel before the police report was made public, 60 percent of respondents say that Netanyahu would need to resign if the charges were endorsed by the police. Only 25 percent said they feel he does not need to resign.

That strong public sentiment should carry the day. The recommendations of the Israeli police need to be more than just another Bibi blip, an opportunity for the  “Magician” to pull another rabbit from his hat and manage to cling to power.

If Nethanyahu is forced to step down, it will be a challenge to find a replacement with sufficient political acumen to handle the slings and arrows of the often brutal Israeli politics. His replacement might be more hawkish on the long-stymied peace process, throwing up more roadblocks to a two-state solution.

But those concerns should not be sufficient to let the Netanyahu government survive. Israelis need confidence in their leaders. The nation’s allies need to know they are working with a government that is above reproach. And its enemies need to be put on notice that whoever they negotiate with will have Israel’s best interests at heart, not his own. It’s time for a fresh start and a new prime minister who can fill all of those needs.