WASHINGTON – When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes to the podium at AIPAC’s general plenary on Tuesday, he won’t be the first prime minister under investigation to seek comfort in the arms of the powerful American pro-Israel lobby.
The first was Ehud Olmert, who flew to Washington in June 2008, just weeks after announcing he would resign if he was indicted as a result of corruption investigations into illegal campaign contributions.
Olmert spent a few days in the US capital where he met with president George W. Bush, whom he described as a “remarkable friend.”
Then, in an address before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Olmert urged action to stop Iran’s nuclear program and called on the Palestinians to work with him to achieve a peace deal.
Netanyahu will have a similar schedule during his four days in Washington this week. He will meet President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on Monday and then address the nearly 20,000 AIPAC delegates in a speech that will probably not be all that different from the one Olmert gave 10 years ago.
Iran will be a key focus for Netanyahu during this visit, and he is hoping to use his meeting with Trump to modify the 2015 nuclear deal. The two leaders will also discuss the administration’s peace proposal, which has reportedly been completed. Based on Netanyahu’s past speeches, he will likely use this one to again call on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to renew peace talks – of course, without preconditions.
The trip to Washington comes at a critical time for Netanyahu. He departed Israel on Saturday night, just one day after he and his wife, Sara, were questioned in the expanding Bezeq probe. Police have already recommended charging the prime minister with bribery in two other criminal investigations.
In addition, Netanyahu’s coalition might be on the verge of collapse
. Insistence by the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties to pass a Basic Law that would equate Torah study with military service is facing opposition from other members of the government, particularly from Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.
And while Netanyahu claims he does not want elections, it might actually be in his interest for them to be called now.
Here are two scenarios:
The first is that the current government survives this crisis. Then, in half a year, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit indicts Netanyahu. In response, Moshe Kahlon (and possibly even Naftali Bennett) force Netanyahu to step down, even though Israeli law allows a prime minister to remain in power after an indictment. That would be the end of Netanyahu’s premiership.
If, however, he goes to elections now, gets reelected and then is indicted, he might be able to convince his coalition partners to stick by his side. The Israeli people, he would be able to tell the coalition, chose him once again to lead them, even while knowing there was a good chance he would be indicted. To now decide to bring down the government and again go to elections, he could say, would be in direct opposition to the will of the Israeli people.
If this works, he would be able to remain prime minister even under indictment and while standing trial.
Olmert’s visit to Washington in 2008 was his last as prime minister. Three months later he resigned as head of Kadima and a few weeks after that, elections were called. Netanyahu is going to be doing everything possible this week to meet a different fate.