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

Israel\'s Netanyahu may weather corruption allegations for now, but the storm is brewing
Israeli Prime Ministers’ Struggles With Corruption: A Timeline
nAfter 14 months of investigation, the Israeli police have finally decided that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a crook.

That doesn;t make him guilty. The cops aren;t always right. Bibi says they are biased. Now the police report goes to the attorney general, Avihai Mandelblit. If he decides to indict, Netanyahu will have to step down. This will take some time, and circumstances can change, but at the moment I;d put the odds against the prime minister at about 3-to-1.

The police announcement that Netanyahu’s acceptance of nearly $300,000 in gifts from two billionaires amounted to bribery sent shockwaves through the Israeli political system and delivered a humiliating blow to Netanyahu after years of allegations and investigations. But it did not appear to immediately threaten his lengthy rule as reaction largely fell along partisan lines. Nearly all of Netanyahu’s Cabinet ministers issued statements of support and his coalition partners all signaled they would stick by him, for now.

In the meantime, he can stay in office. But he will not be nearly as strong or as free as he has been. Israeli prime ministers need a parliamentary majority. Netanyahu;s margin is 61-59, in a coalition of his Likud and five smaller parties. Each has its own ideological, political and personal agendas. And even two rebels with a cause or a grudge could bring down the government by voting with the opposition to disband the current parliament.

In the current Israeli political constellation, there is no alternative coalition Netanyahu could form if this one collapses. He could hand the reins over to one of his fellow Likudniks, which would preserve the coalition, and wait for his day in court, but nobody who knows Bibi thinks he will do any such thing. He intends to fight on and do what it takes to stay in office.

This is not merely a local political situation. Netanyahu is, for better or worse, one of the world;s most important statesmen. On matters pertaining to the Middle East, he has been President Donald Trump;s mentor, guru and partner. In some ways, his senior partner. 

Trump got to the White House without apparently knowing the difference between the West Bank and the West Side Highway. The prime minister comes with a lifetime of expertise, experience and a well-developed Republican world view. Fox News founder Roger Ailes had two photographs on the wall of his office: General George Patton and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has called evangelical Christians Israel;s ;best friends in the world,; and the admiration is mutual. Republicans in Congress stand at attention when he enters the chamber for one of his periodic lectures. Trump, who came to the White House without a party establishment of his own, knows that Bibi is an electoral asset.

The two men also have a common goal. Trump;s key project is to reverse and wipe away every trace of the policies of his predecessor, Barack Obama, foreign as well as domestic. Netanyahu spent the eight years of the Obama administration butting heads over what he considered to be misguided American behavior.

The prime minister and Obama disagreed over just about everything: the legitimacy of Jewish settlements in the West Bank; the status of Jerusalem as Israel;s capital; American support for the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and its disinclination to accept the Brotherhood;s replacement, General al Sisi. Netanyahu disagreed with Obama;s mocking assessment of the Islamic State as a terrorist junior varsity. He was disconcerted by the red line Obama drew and then erased in Syria.

While ministers and mayors are required to resign if indicted, Israeli law is less clear when it comes to the prime minister. Given the legal limbo, and the prolonged process that could lie ahead, Netanyahu’s political future depended mostly on public opinion and political constellations that resulted.

And, most of all, he was frustrated by the administration;s refusal to see the extent to which Iran was a malign force threatening Israel and the Sunni Arab states.

Israeli Prime Ministers' Struggles With Corruption: A Timeline
Israeli Prime Ministers’ Struggles With Corruption: A Timeline

For Trump, all this was a menu for Obama Reversal. In short order, in consultation with Netanyahu, stopping Jewish settlement in the West Bank ceased to be a U.S. priority. Jerusalem was recognized as Israel;s capital. Trump;s team negotiating with the Palestinians was recruited from among American Likudniks, and leaked plans for a peace deal left the Palestinian leadership fuming.

Police say that in that in return for lavish gifts that included jewelry, expensive cigars and champagne, Netanyahu had operated on Milchan’s behalf on U.S. visa matters, tried to legislate a generous tax break for him and sought to promote his interests in the Israeli media market.

Putting annexation row behind them, Netanyahu, Trump set March meet

Trump quickly embraced Netanyahu;s Egyptian ally, Sisi, as an American asset. He stepped up the U.S. war effort against the Islamic State. Above of all, he declared Iranian aggression to be the single greatest threat to America and its interests in the Middle East.  

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who oversees the police, said the prime minister “deserves the assumption of innocence,” while Netanyahu’s coalition whip, David Amsalem, accused the police of committing “an illegitimate act here to attempt a coup d’etat in Israel.”
Following police report, Netanyahu's government still stable
Following police report, Netanyahu’s government still stable

MK Lapid strikes back at coalition assailers

The new president accused Obama of making a feckless nuclear deal with the Ayatollahs and pledged to rescind it if it isn;t improved (;fix it or nix it; in Bibi lingo). In the confrontation with Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, Obama preached military restraint. This week, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced that Israel has the absolute right to defend itself, without waiting for an attack on its citizens. An American green light for pre-emption is something Israel never even dreamed it would get.

Netanyahu doesn;t deserve all the credit (or the blame) for Trump;s policies. Despite all his rhetoric about relieving the U.S. of its global burdens, the president is an instinctive hawk. He also sees the simple wisdom of supporting Israel, a military and technological power, as well as other pro-American Middle Eastern countries.  

And Netanyahu is valuable to Trump in this. He is a cautious but potentially powerful warrior. And he has a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is a trusted and reliable go-between for Washington and Moscow, a role of great importance to both sides given the proximity of their forces and proxies in Syria.  

One of the biggest surprises to emerge was that Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist opposition Yesh Atid party, had given testimony about Netanyahu’s alleged efforts to help Milchan that he witnessed during his term as finance minister.

Benjamin Netanyahu fights for his political career

Still, Trump needs to understand that the Bibi of today is not the Bibi of yesterday. The prime minister is certain to be distracted by his legal jeopardy. He may also be constrained by coalition pressures.

<img src="" title="Promoted by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's attorney general must now scrutinize him” alt=”Promoted by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s attorney general must now scrutinize him”>
Promoted by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s attorney general must now scrutinize him

It is possible, for example, that Naftali Bennett, head of the nationalist Jewish Home Party, might insist on the formal annexation of West Bank settlements, something Netanyahu has resisted until now. Or Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of a right-leaning Russian immigrant party, could demand a greater role in Israel;s relationship with Putin. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (who, like Bennett and Lieberman, has prime ministerial ambitions) heads the 10-member populist Kulanu faction. If he decides to bust the budget on behalf of his working class voters, it would be hard for Netanyahu to say no. And the two ultra-orthodox coalition parties have a Talmud;s worth of theocratic laws they would love to implement.

Promoted by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's attorney general must now scrutinize him
Promoted by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s attorney general must now scrutinize him

Netanyahu Clings to Power After Police Recommend Indictment

This doesn;t mean that Bibi will cave. He is a smooth political operator. And it certainly isn;t a reason for Trump to question his judgement or advice. But I do think the president would be wise, under the circumstances, to insist on getting a second opinion.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at [email protected]

With his coalition partners dutifully lining up behind him, the longtime leader readied himself for a prolonged battle over his political legitimacy as the attorney general considers whether to ultimately press charges.

The political opposition in Israel has called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step down after the country’s police force recommended that he be charged with bribery and breach of trust.

The left-wing Labor leader Avi Gabbay said that Netanyahu’s party must choose the rule of law over supporting the under-fire premier.

“I think it’s clear here that this government needs to go to elections. It can’t be that this government continues as is,” Gabbay told Israel’s Army Radio, according to the Associated Press.

Zehava Gal-On, leader of the left-wing Meretz party, said his cabinet ministers must “show Netanyahu the way out.”

Netanyahu says govt ‘stable’ after police recommend his indictment for corruption

But Netanyahu fought against the recommendation for an indictment and calls for him to step down. “The truth will come to light, and nothing will come of this,” he told a local government meeting in Tel Aviv.

If he was to step down, Netanyahu would fall short of becoming Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, which he is set to become if he remains in power until the next election in 2019.

From left: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on during a cabinet meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on January 28. Israel’s Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh attends the Jerusalem Day march, in Jerusalem, on May 24, 2017. The political opposition in Israel called on Netanyahu to step down after the country’s police force recommended that he be charged with bribery and breach of trust. Thomas Coex, Tsafrir Abayov/AFP/Getty

Police say that there is enough evidence to charge Netanyahu with regard to his receipt of gifts from two billionaires, Hollywood magnate Aaron Milchan and Australian businessman James Packer, to the tune of $300,000. The gifts include pink champagne and cigars.

The authorities said that in the case known as File 1000, there is sufficient evidence to charge Netanyahu for accepting bribes and fraud.

Netanyahu has long decried the investigation into him as a “witch hunt” by the media. He has pledged to fight any claims.

“I will continue to lead the state of Israel responsibly and loyally as long as you, the citizens of Israel, choose me to lead you,” he said in a televised address on Tuesday night.

Ultimately, Israel’s attorney general has the final say on whether Netanyahu is indicted, and that decision could take months. 

Netanyahu’s allies stood with him on Tuesday and Wednesday. His coalition whip David Amsalem accused the police of “a coup d’état in Israel,” while tourism minister Yariv Leven called the recommendation a “coup against the voters.”

Naftali Bennett, a political rival and education minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet, did not comment. He has previously said that the coalition government would not be felled over champagne and cigars.

Allies of Netanyahu in his right-wing Likud party attacked the Israeli leader’s main rival for the premiership, centrist Yair Lapid, after he emerged as a key witness in Case 1000. Lapid said that while he served as Netanyahu’s finance minister, the Israeli leader had tried to usher through a bill that would have helped Milchan. Lapid blocked the bill despite pressure to pass it.

Culture minister Miri Regev called Lapid a “snitch” after it became apparent that he had become crucial to the corruption allegations. Lapid said he acted “like any law-abiding citizen.” He said his party was the “last barrier” against corruption in the Israeli government.

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