Analysis: Netanyahu’s diplomatic calculations

From the time he is questioned by the police onward, there will always be speculation that no matter what he now does diplomatically, it is somehow related to the investigation.

January 3, 2017 09:41
4 minute read.
Benjamin Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: REUTERS)

It’s not every day that the police investigate a sitting prime minister for alleged wrongdoing.

Yet, it’s also not the first time. In fact, Netanyahu will be the third prime minister in a row to be questioned by the police while in office.

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Prime minister Ariel Sharon was questioned by the police in 2004, and Ehud Olmert was questioned in 2007 and 2008. In the case of Sharon, it led nowhere.

In the case of Olmert, it led to his resignation from office and eventual imprisonment.
Benjamin Netanyahu dismissive of corruption allegations on January 2, 2017

A police investigation, by itself, changes nothing.

Netanyahu remains prime minister and head of a relatively stable coalition of parties that have no real interest at this time in going to elections. This type of investigation and its legal ramifications could go on for months, if not years.

But it is still a watershed moment, because it will whet the appetite of Netanyahu’s opponents, both inside the party and out. Everyone will be positioning himself for the possibility that – as in the case of Olmert – the investigations will lead to the downfall of the prime minister. Some will hope that is the result, others will just be positioning themselves to be ready for that eventuality.

There is something ironic about the timing of the questioning, coming less than three weeks before US President-elect Donald Trump enters office.

Finally, after three years of having to work with the Democratic president Bill Clinton in the 1990s and after eight years of having to deal with Barak Obama, Netanyahu is at long last poised on the cusp of working with a Republican president who seems well attuned to his view of the world and the region.

And it is precisely now, at this moment which is so pregnant for him with such opportunity with the new US administration, that the police come knocking on his door.

Politics and diplomacy are intricately intertwined, and there is no doubt that the investigation will impact Netanyahu across the broad range of issues he is dealing with. The question is what impact will it have.

One possibility is the “etrog” model, which would have the prime minister tack strongly Left on diplomatic issues as a result of the investigations, in an effort to gain the protection of many in the media and the legal field who would want to keep him in power to carry out policies they may deem fitting and proper.

Sharon first broached his plan to withdraw from Gaza in December 2003, at a time when – in addition to the swirling second intifada – he was involved in a number of legal tangles having to do with South African businessman Cyril Kern and the so-called Greek Island affair. In February 2004, he was questioned by the police in his official residence for two-anda- half hours over the latter affair.

In 2005, veteran Channel 2 commentator Amnon Abramovich, at a symposium with other veteran journalists in Jerusalem, said: “We have to protect Sharon like an etrog. Protect him in a sealed box padded with gauze, cotton and plastic wrap, at least until the end of the disengagement.”

The idea was that the media should go easy on Sharon, at least until the withdrawal from Gaza was complete.

That’s one model. It is unlikely, however, considering the intense enmity that exists at this time between Netanyahu and much of the media, that many would be willing to extend him the same treatment. Olmert, who was in the midst of significant diplomatic steps when he was bedeviled by questioning while in office, was not gauzed in a protective etrog box. And the mainstream media liked Olmert then much more than they like Netanyahu now.

The other possibility would be for the prime minister to tack Right politically, hoping that by so doing he could gain sympathy on the Right that would help him fend off challenges that could pick up steam if the investigation continues for a number of weeks.

For instance, if Netanyahu were tomorrow to back Bayit Yehudi’s plan to extend Israeli law to Ma’aleh Adumim, that could perhaps cement an important political ally down the line if there are calls for the coalition parties to force a prime minister under investigation to resign. While that is all now very much in the realm of the hypothetical, a good politician takes into account all possible hypotheticals.

And Netanyahu is nothing if not a consummate politician.

So what will he do, tack Left, or tack Right? No one really knows. One thing is certain, however, and that is from the time he is questioned by the police onward, there will always be speculation that no matter what he now does diplomatically, it is somehow related to the investigation.

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