Can Netanyahu become the longest-serving Israeli leader?
Over the years, Netanyahu has survived many political storms. But now one of his confidants has agreed to provide testimony on behalf of the state over alleged corrupt dealings the Prime Minister was involved in. A year-long investigation also concluded last week with Israeli police recommending that Netanyahu be indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.The prime minister is accused of allegedly receiving about $280 000 (R3.3 million) in gifts, in return for political favours, and of making a secret pact with an Israeli publisher for favourable coverage of him and his wife.
Netanyahu continues to deny any wrongdoing, insisting that he’s the victim of a “media witch hunt” co-ordinated by the left, the police and those who want him out of office. His supporters have lined up behind him.
But recent polls show that the majority of Israelis believe the police version of events and not Netanyahu’s, and think he is corrupt and should resign. Still, the same polls reveal, his ruling Likud party has not lost support but, in fact, has strengthened.
Despite police having announced in August last year that Netanyahu was a suspect in two cases, he has nonetheless consistently polled as Israel’s favourite candidate for prime minister – a good 10 points ahead of his nearest rival.
The prime minister doesn’t refute the facts published by the police, but it’s the interpretation of those facts that makes all the difference. It begs the question: When is it okay to receive gifts as a prime minister and when does a gift become a bribe?
Still, the police can only recommend. It’s the attorney-general, Avichai Mandelblit, who has to decide whether to indict Netanyahu or not. For most of last year, protestors gathered outside Mandelblit’s Petah Tikva home, calling for the prime minister’s resignation. Those protests have since moved to Tel Aviv but to date have failed to attract huge numbers.
Mandelblit, a former Netanyahu ally, is known for taking his time in making decisions – something Netanyahu is banking on because the longer the investigations continue, the more chance he has of seeing out his current term in office.
Here opinions are split as some Israeli observers insist Netanyahu will be able to survive until the next elections, while others point out that the attorney-general has overseen every step so far and could therefore make up his mind quite quickly.
All of this is taking place against the backdrop of rising tensions on the Israel-Syria border. When war looms, Israelis rally around their government, especially the tough-talking Netanyahu, who has positioned himself as the only Israeli leader capable of protecting the country against the Iranian nuclear threat.
No doubt Tehran and its growing influence, particularly in Syria, is of real concern to Israelis, but it is also likely that Netanyahu has been hyping up the Iranian threat so as to deflect attention away from the growing list of corruption charges he faces.
Even among those Israelis who don’t support him, he is seen as a tried and tested leader so that, should Israel suddenly find itself embroiled in a new war on its northern border – a scenario that is steadily becoming all too real – most of the population would feel more secure having him at the helm.
For now, the prime minister’s right wing coalition partners are sticking with him, and they’re unlikely to budge for as long as their political future is secure. Recent polls show they have nothing to worry about and that if elections were held today in Israel, the coalition government would still have the majority.
Within the Likud party itself, no one is openly challenging Netanyahu’s leadership, so politically he is not worried.
The timing also plays into his hands because, should Netanyahu end up being brought to court, a very lengthy trial will distract him from dealing with the affairs of state – a situation which no one in Israel wants to see, particularly when the security situation is so delicate.
Still, there are those who argue that the investigations are taking their toll on the prime minister and making it tougher for him to focus his attention and run the country. Even so, it is difficult to prove that Netanyahu’s decision-making skills have been affected by the endless corruption scandals that have dogged him, in particular over the past two years.
If there is good news in all this, it’s that Israel’s democracy functions. Should Netanyahu ultimately be found guilty, he’ll be the second Israeli prime minister to be sent to jail, after Ehud Olmert spent 16 months in jail, from February 2016 to July 2017.
Netanyahu will, of course, do everything he can to prevent this, but even if he manages to buy a little more time as prime minister, it’s far from clear how his current tenure will end – in prison or back in office.
Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of Newshound Media and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.