Netanyahu’s Fight for Political Survival

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media in Ramat Gan, Israel on Feb. 21.Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90

JEWISH LIGHT EDITORIAL

A little more than a month before the Israeli elections April 9, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been widely expected to win, came the stunning news that the nation’s attorney general plans to indict him on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Netanyahu has denounced the indictments as being part of a politically motivated “witch hunt” — sound familiar? —  timed to derail his bid to become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister since David Ben-Gurion, the founding head of Israel’s government.

But despite Netanyahu’s ridicule, the charges are serious and cannot simply be shoved under the rug. According to documents released last week by the Israeli Ministry of Justice, allegations facing Netanyahu include:

Receiving gifts in exchange for favors. The prime minister reportedly got champagne, jewelry and expensive cigars from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer. In return, Netanyahu pushed for extension of a 10-year tax exemption to expatriate Israelis who come back to the country, which could benefit Milchan. The Finance Ministry blocked the legislation.

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Seeking favorable news coverage. Netanyahu supposedly discussed the prospect with Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Yediot Ahronot, a leading Israeli daily newspaper, and Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino magnate and a devoted Netanyahu supporter who is the financial backer of Israel Hayom, a rival paper. In exchange, Yediot Ahronot would help the prime minister win upcoming elections. The deal was never completed.

In another allegation, Netanyahu is said to have gained favorable news coverage for himself and his wife, including the suppression or softening of critical reports and an increase in flattering stories, particularly around the 2013 and 2015 elections and during coverage of scandals involving the Netanyahus.

The decision to issue the indictments came after a two-year investigation by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. Netanyahu may now seek a hearing to challenge the charges.

Of course, the prime minister is entitled to a presumption of innocence until the charges have been fully investigated. But the fact that he is the first sitting prime minister to face multiple indictments has already cost him the comfortable lead he had enjoyed in most opinion polls. In a recent survey, the frontrunner was Benny Gantz, a popular former Israel Defense Forces leader who has formed a center-left coalition.

Netanyahu also has been criticized for recent political moves aimed at shoring up his candidacy. He drew scorn from pro-Israel American Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee and AIPAC for his Faustian pact with the extreme right parties associated with the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. All mainstream Israeli parties, including Netanuahu’s own Likud Party, have denounced Kahane as racist who was far beyond the pale of acceptability.

The allegations against the prime minister are serious and worrisome. In the weeks leading up to next month’s election, the question will become whether they carry sufficient weight to force his departure from office.  Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, a lifelong liberal Democrat who has become vocal in recent months as a defender of U.S. President Donald Trump, has expressed doubt that the charges rise to that level. Also, the prime minister’s Likud Party allies have reaffirmed their loyalty to Netanyahu.

Israel has always been a rough-and-tumble democracy, even a messy one. A sound argument can be made that Gantz should be given a chance to lead Israel as it prepares for the release of a long-awaited U.S. Mideast peace plan and deals with ongoing security challenges. But given his lengthy tenure in office, Netanyahu has come to symbolize Israeli leadership in a way that may let him survive the latest challenges.

A story in Sunday’s New York Times underscored that point. It quoted Reuven Abramove, the owner of a grocery story in Rehovot, as saying, “Look around. Israel under his leadership has gotten stronger and safer. Only Bibi can run this country.”

His wife, Negina, added: “I would rather have a dishonest but strong leader than an honest but clueless leader. He is the one holding this country up.”

With those kinds of fans, Netanyahu may survive his latest controversy and show once again that he is the Artful Dodger of Israeli politics. He will get his day in court and at the ballot box. But the outcome is far from certain. His long career has shown that even when he is down, Netanyahu is by no me