Foreign observers may have a hard time squaring Benjamin Netanyahu’s international stature as a statesman with his suddenly vulnerable position at home.
Abroad, both those that hate the Israeli prime minister and those that admire him view him as a successful leader. His diplomatic skills have transformed Israel from an international pariah, at the mercy of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the international left, to a rising star on the international scene.
Economically, Netanyahu is credited worldwide with shepherding Israel from a sclerotic socialist backwater in the early 1990s into a first world economy and a global leader in innovation and technological advancement.
In the context of these extraordinary achievements, and as Israel faces mounting security challenges from Iran in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza — challenges amplified last Saturday with the violent clashes between Iran and the Syrian military and Israel — the police’s sudden announcement that they recommend indicting Netanyahu for bribery seems incongruous.
But as Tip O’Neill, the late, long-serving Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, famously said, “all politics is local.”
This truth was borne out in spades on Tuesday night in Israel, when the Israeli police announced that they are recommending that Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit indict Netanyahu on two counts of bribery and two counts of breach of trust in two separate investigations.
The reason these events are happening is because Netanyahu is hated by Israel’s entrenched elites, who benefited most from the way things used to be. And they would like very much to unseat him and replace him with someone who would change the direction of Israel’s foreign, defense and economic policies.
To be sure, there would be nothing untoward or inappropriate about a police investigation of a sitting prime minister if the suspicions were of significant seriousness to warrant endangering the stability of Israel’s political leadership.
But the cases for which Netanyahu has been investigated, and for which the police now recommend his indictment, are not serious. Indeed, officials at the Israeli justice ministry blasted the police Wednesday in conversations with reporters. According to Hadashot news, justice ministry attorneys say the police “inflated the balloon” of suspicions against Netanyahu to its bursting point, and that the investigation reports the police submitted do not support their conclusions.
So why did the police rush to announce their conclusions? Why did they time the release of their recommendations to the start of the primetime news broadcasts on Tuesday night?
Likud lawmakers Wednesday accused investigators of trying to carry out a coup. Specifically, the lawmakers accused the police of abusing their power to carry out criminal investigations to conduct a spurious investigation of Netanyahu for the sole purpose of overthrowing him and replacing him with a leader who is more to their liking.
For their part, the police are doing nothing to dispel the notion that they are behaving not as dispassionate crime-stoppers but as adjuncts of political forces. The police’s star witness in one of the probes is Netanyahu’s chief political challenger for the premiership, Yair Lapid. Lapid, Netanyahu’s former finance minister, is the leader of the center-left Yesh Atid party, which has been polling in second place behind the Likud for more than a year.
Lapid’s conflicts of interests with Netanyahu, with the police, and with the other principle suspects in the case — businessman Arnon Milchan and newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes — are legion.
Furthermore, Lapid recently brought Yoav Segalovich — the retired police superintendent and the head of the police’s investigations and intelligence department — into his party.
In addition, police spokeswoman Deputy Superintendent Merav Lapidot served as Lapid’s spokeswoman when he was finance minister, and has publically supported him politically and disparaged Netanyahu.
Moreover, Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich exposed his personal hatred and betrayed his desire to see Netanyahu thrown from office in a scandalous interview last Wednesday on Israel’s top rated television news magazine, Uvda.
Lapid is the central witness in what the police have dubbed Case 1000, which involves allegations that Netanyahu and his wife Sara received exorbitant gifts from Hollywood movie producer and Israeli businessman Arnon Milchan, and in exchange intervened on his behalf in multiple instances. For example, Netanyahu asked then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to renew Milchan’s residency visa to the US.
In his testimony to police, Lapid alleged that in 2013, during his tenure as finance minister in Netanyahu’s government, Netanyahu had two conversations with him where he told Lapid that he supported an amendment to Israel’s income tax law that Milchan was trying to advance.
In 2008, the government of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert government passed a law through the Knesset that gave tax exemption on global income and an exemption on reporting on global income for a period of ten years for new immigrants and returning Israeli expatriates.
In 2013, in two separate meetings, Milchan lobbied Lapid, a close friend, to back an amendment to the law that would extend the tax and reporting exemptions for another ten years.
Lapid told investigators that he told Milchan that he opposed his proposal. Notably, according to media reports, no one at the finance ministry remembers the meetings.
Lapid told police that after both meetings, Netanyahu called him up and told him that he thought Milchan’s proposal was a good idea and that it would increase immigration of high net worth individuals to Israel.
On the basis of these conversations, the police recommended that Attorney General indict Netanyahu for bribery.
(Lapid, for his part, was never the subject of a criminal probe for his friendship with Milchan.)
As for Mozes, the police allege that he offered Netanyahu a bribe whereby Netanyahu would help his newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, by working to curtail circulation and government advertising in Israel Hayom, a free daily owned by U.S. billionaire and Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson. In exchange, Mozes allegedly offered to scale back his newspaper’s implacably hostile editorial line against Netanyahu.
Although Netanyahu never agreed to Mozes’s terms, and instead disbanded his government and went to early elections partly to protect Israel Hayom (see below), Lapid did everything he could to advance Mozes’s goal of expanding his paper’s market share by wiping out his chief competitor.
Lapid had a long history with Mozes. He worked for him as a columnist at Yediot Ahronot for decades. Lapid also launched his political career at a party Mozes threw for him.
In 2014, Lapid’s lawmakers were co-sponsors of a draft law referred to as the Israel Hayom law. The purpose of the law, which Yediot Ahronot’s lawyers helped to draft, was to shut down Israel Hayom. Half of his Knesset faction voted in favor of the law in a preliminary reading. It was in response to that preliminary reading, where the bill passed through the first of three formal readings with with 43 “yea” votes, that Netanyahu fired Lapid and two other faction heads in his government, disbanded the Knesset, and called for new elections barely a year after the 2013 elections.
And yet, neither Lapid – who enjoys overwhelmingly positive coverage in Yediot Ahronot – nor any of the members of his Knesset faction were ever investigated for their role in advancing Mozes’s agenda.
Watching this drama unfold, Israelis and foreigners alike are wondering how Netanyahu’s legal troubles will affect his ability to lead the country.
Given the political nature of the police’s actions, the answer is that Netanyahu will be able to continue to carry out his duties so long as he retains the support of his base of voters. So far, he is maintaining his voters’ support.
A poll conducted for Hadashot news Wednesday showed that the Likud gained a seat in a hypothetical Knesset election. Lapid’s Yesh Atid lost two seats.
But the police recommendations do hurt him. They hurt him by casting a shadow over his legitimacy. Over the coming months, that shadow can erode his support base.
And they hurt him because they place enormous pressure on the attorney general to indict him. Justice ministry officials reportedly believe that the police put them in an impossible situation. On the one hand, investigators exaggerated Netanyahu’s alleged misdeeds — and on the other hand, they didn’t provide the prosecutors with the evidence needed to sustain an indictment, let alone a conviction.
Netanyahu recently told associates that he can handle the criminal probes while leading the country because he is a multitasker. “When I went through the tests to serve in [my commando unit] in the IDF,” he said, “they were amazed at my score for multitasking. They had never seen a score that high,” he said.
Netanyahu’s multitasking skills – and mainly his political skills — are going to be tested as never before in the coming months, as he is called upon to satisfy his voters in a brutal political environment.
But what is clear enough is that so long as he is able to keep their support, there is no reason to expect a change in the general direction of Israel’s foreign, defense, or economic policies.