Israel: In Suspense, or Perhaps Suspended Animation
February 27, 2018
“The situation in the country is not good: it’s hard for ordinary people to make ends meet, the price of living is too high, no one has been able to afford an apartment for years,” even in the crummier exurbs of Tel Aviv. “But why are they getting so worked up about champagne and cigars? Is it illegal to be a hedonist?”
My cab driver from the airport explained that the big problem in Israel is that there is “no one serious” in line to take over for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who he believes has been in power for too long. The cabbie added that power corrupts, and that the country needs new blood. He is no leftist, he is at pains to stress, but “an airing-out is needed.”
The most obvious feeling in Israel right now is one of anticipation, and more correctly, of hanging fire. Last week, the National Police announced that they will recommend to the Attorney General to indict Prime Minister Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in two existing criminal investigations (“Files 1000 and 2000”). Netanyahu is being investigate for systematically receiving high-value gifts (the aforementioned cigars and champagne) from an Israeli businessman residing in the U.S., possibly in return for Netanyahu’s assistance, and for a murky discussion (which never came to fruition) with a media baron on exchanging positive media coverage in return for steps to restrict a rival newspaper.
The Director General of the Communications Ministry, who was reportedly Netanyahu’s right-hand man when he served as Communications Minister from 2015 until last year, has turned state’s evidence (February 20) in a third case (“File 4000”). This case involves negotiations with another media mogul to tone down negative coverage of Netanyahu in one of Israel’s leading news websites, owned by Israel’s privatized main telecoms company (which the mogul owns), in exchange for beneficial treatment, adding up to millions of dollars, for the company. After this case hit the headlines, the Chief Justice of Israel’s Supreme Court reported another shocking allegation. Two years ago, a former judicial colleague mentioned to her that one of the suspects in “File 4000”, who was a close advisor to Netanyahu and his controversial wife Sarah, offered the colleague to be appointed as Attorney General of Israel, in return for assistance in closing criminal investigations of Sarah Netanyahu’s household spending.
The headlines in the press crowed that this is the beginning of the end for Netanyahu. But the political calculus is more complicated. It is often said that there are now only two political parties in Israel: pro-Bibi and anti-Bibi. The new revelations do not faze the pro-Netanyahu base. They believe that it is simply the latest move in an concentrated campaign by the “extreme Left”—abetted by what they term a politicized and “out of control” police force and prosecutorial service and the left-wing media—to achieve through leaks and court cases what they have consistently failed to achieve at the ballot box. Netanyahu’s defenders claim that there is a clear attempt to carry out an “anti-democratic putsch” by unelected representatives of the deep state: One Likud Member of the Knesset (MK) even compared the “persecution” of Netanyahu to the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin. What is the alleged strategy of the anti-Bibis, in this view? To create such a critical mass of insinuations, half-truths, and leaked investigations so as to imprint on public consciousness, without proof, Netanyahu’s guilt and create a public tsunami in favor of his stepping down, temporarily or permanently. Special contempt is directed at the use of state’s witnesses (so far there are two from Netanyahu’s close circle), which is portrayed—not necessarily inaccurately—as using confessed criminals to smear the Prime Minister, in exchange for immunity for their own crimes. His defenders note that nothing in Israeli law requires the Prime Minister to step down until he has been found guilty in a court of law.
The Left and the crusading press claim that “there is no smoke without fire” and that regardless of whether the prime minister committed criminal acts, his behavior is beyond acceptable norms and values. They gleefully note that in 2008 when Netanyahu was in the opposition and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was under a series of criminal investigations (and ultimately stepped down, was tried, and convicted), Netanyahu was the most prominent voice demanding that he immediately step down as prime minister:
A prime minister who is up to his neck in interrogations, has no moral and public mandate to determine such fateful things for the State of Israel. . . . There is a concern, I have to say real and not unfounded, that he will make decisions based on the personal interest of his political survival and not on the basis of national interest. The right thing to do is for this government to go home, to return the mandate to the voter.
Some commentators note that the elites and the press seem to be more outraged than the public. They note that all four of the most recent prime ministers have been investigated for corruption (and one went to prison). Their assessment? That Israelis are more concerned with having strong, forceful leaders who will protect them, than clean-handed ones, and that there is an expectation for Israeli politicians to be “bulldozers” with street smarts; “bastard” (momzer) is often used in Israel in an admiring way. At least in the past two decades, those politicians who were pillars of personal rectitude did not fare particularly well.
The Future of the Government
There is some speculation, or wishful thinking, that the next elections—scheduled for November 2019—might be moved up. But the politics don’t seem to be working out that way so far. For the current government to fall and elections to be declared, the governing coalition has to lose its majority. And the leaders of the parties making up Netanyahu’s coalition are, for now, not interested in taking the risk of new elections. The partners are happy with the direction of the current right-wing government and are not convinced that they will do as well in the next elections as they did in the last ones. A wave of nationalist legislation is anticipated now that the future is less clear, and the parties may have to show achievements to their bases earlier than anticipated. In addition, elections are always a risk: they fear they might end up in the opposition if new elections are held and Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid Party, and the most significant figure today in the opposition, does better than expected and forms the next government.
The leaders of all five coalition partners are thus standing by Netanyahu at this stage. Their eyes, like those of everyone in Israel, are turned to Avihai Mandelblit, the Attorney General, who is a former Cabinet Secretary and Judge Advocate General of the Israeli Defense Forces. Mandelblit, as the head of the Public Prosecution Service, is the one who has the final say on whether or not to accept the police recommendations and indict the Netanyahu. He has been under significant public pressure for many months (including weekly demonstrations and counterdemonstrations outside his home), with the Left claiming that his relationship with Netanyahu is causing him to hold back. The political class—at least on the Right and Center—has found it convenient at this juncture to shift the onus of a painful political decision and leave the political future of the country in the unelected hands of Mandelblit. Most of Netanyahu’s political partners, including in his own Likud party, say that it is still too early to discuss the prime minister’s political future and that discussion the time for that will only come if and when the Attorney General decides to indict. This may push the moment of criticality off by months. At that point, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party, the most centrist component of the governing coalition and the only one which could join either political constellation, are expected to be the fulcrum of the process. He is standing by Netanyahu for now.
One potential wild card: developments in the remaining corruption investigation (File 3000), which pertains to kickbacks in the procurement of submarines from Germany, which has already engulfed several former senior officers and Netanyahu associates. The investigation has so far not touched the Prime Minister directly, but if it did, his image as “Mr. Security” could take a hit.
One interesting thing to note is that with one or two exceptions, the Ministers from the Likud have been noteworthy in their silence. Likud Members of Knesset have taken to the airwaves in full-throated defense of the prime minister, but the senior figures in Likud are seen as hanging back. They, too, seem to be busy with political higher math. If Netanyahu resigns, it will not necessarily lead to new elections, especially if the Likud and the partner parties agree to support a Likud luminary to replace him for the year and a half until the scheduled elections.
In addition, according to polls published at the end of last week, while Likud may lose three or four seats if early elections are held, it will still be the largest party in the Knesset—even if Netanyahu is no longer its leader—and it has the best chance of being asked by the President to form the next government. The polls show the coalition shrinking by three-four seats, but still retaining a scant majority. The base does not seem to be as moved by the allegations as the chattering classes. These politicians, therefore, may see no benefit in standing too close behind the prime minister in his time of vulnerability, but also none are interested in being seen as joining the “assault by the Left” and offending their voters. This is especially true since there is no heir apparent to Netanyahu in his party, and the knives will be out for whoever “breaks cover” and criticizes him. If the past is any indication, Netanyahu will soon pressure his ministers to step forward and defend him.
National security affairs also seem to be hanging fire, at least for the immediate future. The clashes a fortnight ago in Syria—the interception of an Iranian UAV, the attacks by Israel on the launch site, the downing of an Israeli fighter aircraft, and the wide Israeli response against Syrian military targets—fed widespread speculation that there will be war this summer in the North of Israel. But similar speculation has arisen almost every summer since the last major clash with Hezbollah in 2006. It could happen, but it may not, especially when the Russians seem to be interested in lowering the temperature. Netanyahu’s allies reject claims that he is purposely whipping up regional tension to deflect attention from his legal difficulties The American announcement that the U.S. Embassy will be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May, to coincide with Israel’s 70th Independence Day, should deliver a popularity boost to the Prime Minister from the foreign policy side.
In any case, Netanyahu shows no sign of throwing in the towel and broadcasts that he is not going anywhere. His strategy seems to be to keep a full schedule of important, official activity—especially of a security and diplomatic nature—and to project a lack of concern. As he told his Security Cabinet on February 21, “Business is as usual. . . . I intend to continue dealing with the things that are truly important, for the benefit of the state.” But it’s not sure that even my cabbie will be convinced for long.
 They obtained more grist for this argument, when it turned out (25 February) that a judge in the 4000case had been surreptitiously coordinating remand extentions with one of the investigators in the case: both were suspended.
 These arguments are helped by the nature of the cases themselves, which shine a spotlight on the murky web of politician-tycoon-media relations and the intrusive effect of foreign considerations into coverage.
 It is worth noting at this juncture that public opinion polls in Israel usually underestimate support for Likud.