Throughout his political career, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been dogged by scandals that threatened to bring him down.
There was “Bibi-gate” in 1993, at the very beginning of his career, when Netanyahu claimed that he was being blackmailed by a video of him in a compromising position with a woman other than his wife in order to get him to drop out of the Likud leadership race.
After he lost the elections in 1999 to Ehud Barak there were screaming headlines that Netanyahu and his wife kept state gifts worth some $100,000, something that would surely doom any future comeback effort.
And since he returned to power in 2009, there was “Bibi Tours”–allegations that he and his family traveled and were wined and dined on someone else’s dime when he was finance minister from 2003 to 2005 – as well as various other scandals involving the alleged penny-pinching and misbehavior of his wife, Sara.
Each of these scandals festered, boiled over and then burst, without bringing down Netanyahu.
The current scandals involving Netanyahu, however, feel a bit different because of the decision by his former chief of staff, Ari Harow, to turn state’s witness.
No one really knows what Harow will reveal, but the widespread assumption is that he will provide damning evidence in at least one of the three current cases under investigation: Case 1000
, involving the acceptance of gifts from a very wealthy friend; Case 2000
, involving collusion with Yediot Aharonot
to get favorable coverage; and Case 3000
, involving the purchase of three submarines from Germany.
They also feel different, because a court document last week revealed that the police were investigating Netanyahu on suspicion of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
That is not insignificant.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, in a Channel 2 interview Saturday night, said that the prime minister legally need not resign when an indictment is served – at the beginning of the legal process – only at the end, if he is convicted and after the appeals process is exhausted. That is according to a dry reading of the law.
She added, there is the question of “values,” and this is a question the coalition parties will have to ask themselves if that day arrives. Then she said, “We are not there.”
At least not yet. That day, according to what Harow testifies to, might not be that far off, however.
When it comes, the parties will obviously ask themselves not only what is good for the country, but also what is good politically for them.
Neither haredi party – not Shas and not United Torah Judaism – has a real interest in bringing down this government, since they have rarely had it so good in any previous government.
Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman has no interest in that happening either, since he still needs time to prove himself as a national leader in the Defense portfolio, and his poll number are not encouraging. Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon is also not faring well in the polls, and would think twice about whether he wants to face the electorate at this time.
The only coalition party that would benefit, according to the polls, from elections now as a result of the scandals would be Bayit Yehudi. But is it in its interest to pull out of the government and force elections, not knowing for sure how they would turn out, and with the trauma of 1992 elections always in mind? The 1992 election was triggered when the right wing brought down Yitzhak Shamir, only to get Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo process instead.
Bayit Yehudi retains leverage over Netanyahu precisely if it doesn’t bring down the government, because then the premier will constantly rule under the threat that it could do so at any time.
Some argued that both Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert tacked Left in the last decade because they thought that this could keep a lid on public pressure regarding their own evolving scandals, and keep them in power.
One could make the opposite argument now regarding Netanyahu: that he needs to tack to the Right, because by so doing he will not give Bayit Yehudi any excuse to want to bring down his government.
Shaked said that the law does not obligate the prime minister to step down if an indictment is issued. But that raises another question: How will he govern? Israel is a country with more than a few life-and-death issues on its plate. It needs a prime minister able to focus all his energies, or the bulk of his energies, on those issues.
All decisions that a prime minister under indictment makes will be questioned through the prism of whether they were influenced by the indictment, by an effort to sway public opinion or deflect the issue.
Netanyahu often says that all his actions are motivated by a desire to ensure the security of the country and its citizens. The public believed him, which is why he was elected prime minister on four occasions. Running the country under indictment, however, would raise questions about whether there are other factors behind his decisions. The coalition parties may be soon be faced with the decision about whether that is indeed a healthy way to rule the land.