Editor's Notes: Is the Netanyahu era over?

The police recommendations might have chiseled a small crack in Mr. Teflon’s armor, but it is still far from shattering.

By
February 16, 2018 16:30
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to give a speech in Tel Aviv, Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to give a speech in Tel Aviv, Israel February 14, 2018. (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)

The fate of Benjamin Netanyahu is far from sealed. On the contrary – the battle has just begun.

On the one hand, the police recommendations are grave and serious. For Netanyahu, this seems to be, as our legal analyst Yonah Jeremy Bob wrote on Wednesday, the “worst case scenario.” If previously it was thought that the probes would end with a slap on the wrist, that is not the case: an indictment for bribery is the most severe recommendation the police could have made.

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On the other hand, it might not prove fatal. Imagine the following scenario: Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit takes the next six-to-12 months to review the evidence, and decides with regards to Case 1000 – otherwise known as the “gifts affair” – to indict Netanyahu on the lesser and vaguer charge of breach of trust.

If that happens, Netanyahu might as well go immediately to elections, since he would likely win. He would argue that the police ran a politicized investigation (I’ll get back to this soon), framed him, and built a paper tiger case. In the end, from a bombastic recommendation of bribery, all that is left, he will claim, is breach of trust, a charge so vague that it would likely have minimal impact on voter results.

I have no way of knowing that this will happen, and as we’ve seen throughout the police investigations against Netanyahu, there are bound to be a significant number of surprises still ahead. What is certain though is that it is way too early to eulogize Netanyahu. The police recommendations might have chiseled a small crack in Mr. Teflon’s armor, but it is still far from shattering.

Netanyahu still has a substantial amount of ammo up his sleeve before he would need to call it quits. The interview Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich gave Ilana Dayan last week raises serious questions about Alsheich’s suitability to remain head of police. All you have to do is watch the first few minutes of the interview. Dayan plays for Alsheich a speech Netanyahu gave a few months ago during which the prime minister claimed that 60% of police recommendations to indict are thrown in the trash.

This is how Alsheich reacted: “A pity. In one word, a pity. I think it is a pity for all of us.”

Alsheich seems to have forgotten his role. He is not a prime minister, he is not a politician and the people did not elect him. Since when does the police chief give elected officials grades for their speeches or what they say? That is the right of politicians. It might be wrong and unethical, but the people elect them. Alsheich is a civil servant. He needs to keep quiet and carry on.

Can you imagine what would happen if the IDF chief of staff went on TV and started to publicly criticize the defense minister? He would stand accused of rebelling against his superior, the Israeli government. It is true that the police do not receive directives from the government like the IDF does, and have more independence to be able, for example, to investigate the political echelon. However, that doesn’t make what Alsheich did okay.

The rest of the interview is no better. Alsheich, who comes off as arrogant, claimed that “powerful figures” paid people to follow the police officers working on the Netanyahu investigations. That is quite a bombshell to drop just days before releasing the results of the investigation against the prime minister.

What was Alsheich thinking? I am not sure even he knows. What he did, however, was give Netanyahu an easy case to make to the public of how rigged the police investigations were to begin with. The interview does not help Alsheich or the police. It undermines all of them.

Then there is the involvement of Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, whose role in the case was revealed on Tuesday night. According to police, Netanyahu tried to promote a tax bill that would benefit his friend, Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. Lapid was finance minister at the time.

Police might take what Lapid says at face value, but that will be a difficult argument to make to the public. Lapid is one of the main challengers running to become prime minister in the next election, and the Likud is already claiming that Lapid is biased and his testimony cannot be believed. A large portion of the right-wing camp will agree.

The third problem is that both cases – 1000 and 2000 – are difficult to explain. When the public imagines bribery, it thinks about cash-laden envelopes thrust into the hand of a politician under a table in a dark bar. Alleged horse trading between a prime minister and a newspaper publisher, as in Case 2000, does not immediately fall into that category.

It is also important to keep in mind that journalist-politician dealings have been going on for centuries, at least since the printing press was invented. As I have written before, it would be an unfortunate precedent for this case to go to court. If it does, it will open a Pandora’s box. Every conversation between a journalist and a politician will become potential evidence in future police investigations. This would undermine watchdog journalism and government transparency.

The irony of the police announcement is that it took place just four days after Netanyahu seemed to have successfully managed a major security crisis along the border with Syria.

While Saturday’s events seem like a lifetime ago in terms of the news cycle, it was interesting to see how all politicians – including on the far Left – came out against claims that Netanyahu was manufacturing the flare-up to divert attention from the pending police report.

Zehava Gal-on from Meretz and Isaac Herzog from Labor issued statements, and some people – known Netanyahu-bashers – went so far as to say that it was exactly at times like Saturday’s incident that they are happy it is Netanyahu sitting in the prime minister’s chair.

Nevertheless, the police announcement is not something that will just go away. While Netanyahu announced on Tuesday night that he would not go down quietly – that he will fight on, and will run in the next election – it might not be up to him. There is a growing disgruntled faction within the Likud, where even long-time confidants like Yuval Steinitz and Gilad Erdan now barely speak to the prime minister.

Even Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who rarely attacks Netanyahu, came out against him on Wednesday, saying that while the final decision is up to Mandelblit, taking such large gifts from businessmen (Case 1000) is no way for a prime minister to act.

In the end, though, it is not going to be the police or the attorney-general who will determine Netanyahu’s fate. It will be either Netanyahu volunteering to resign, or Bennett and Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon deciding after an indictment is served to bolt the coalition. This is what happened in 2008, when Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak presented prime minister Ehud Olmert with an ultimatum that forced him to resign – even before there was an indictment.

In other words, it might take time, but it could be we are nearing the end of Israel’s Netanyahu era.

***

Speaking of Iran and Syria – has anyone seen America lately? Apparently, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Cairo and Amman this week, but he did not have time to hop over to Israel.

Based on recent reports in Washington, it is possible that even if Tillerson had stopped in Israel, it would not have made a difference. Apparently, the top US diplomat has had a bit of a falling out with the president. In any case, in the Middle East, perception is sometimes just as important as action.

This was true when Vice President Mike Pence came to Israel last month. There were those who claimed that Pence’s visit meant nothing since he doesn’t really have any authority. I thought the opposite. Though Pence might not have executive powers, it sent a message when everyone saw the love he showered on Israel – America and Israel standing united – that resonates throughout the Middle East. The same happened this week with Tillerson’s absence. It sent the opposite message.

This was particularly true when the trip came just days after the most serious round of violence between Israel, Syria and Iran in recent history. Not too long ago, the US secretary of state was the first person the Israeli prime minister called when there was trouble in Lebanon or Syria. Olmert spoke with Condoleezza Rice immediately after the Hezbollah abduction of two IDF reservists in the summer of 2006, and we all have heard from John Kerry how often he would speak with Netanyahu during his four-year term as secretary of state.

This time, though, while there was a phone call with Tillerson on Saturday, the main player for Israel when it comes to Syria is the Kremlin. That is why Netanyahu has traveled so many times to Russia over the last year to meet with Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately, it does not seem like it has helped.

The missiles fired at Israel’s fighter jets on Saturday were Russian-made. While they were sold to Syria, it is hard to believe that the Russians don’t have some control over what the Assad regime does with them, especially when the base Iran used to control its drone is apparently also home to Russian soldiers.

Jerusalem cannot rely on Moscow to keep Israel’s security concerns at the top of its priorities. That simply will not happen. For the situation in Syria to change in a more positive direction, America needs to get involved. If it doesn’t, Israel will not be the only country to suffer.


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