It is very rare that Israeli politicians salivate over what is happening in London – especially lately.
But there was the prime minister and leader of the British Conservative Party, David Cameron, actually submitting his resignation, and there was a successor taking over in a relatively clean and uncomplicated change of power.
And then, shortly after Theresa May replaced Cameron Wednesday, she went and immediately appointed a foreign secretary in former London mayor Boris Johnson.
Likud politicians could only dream of our prime minister and the leader of Israel’s conservative party, Benjamin Netanyahu, ever leaving office willingly at his own volition and allowing someone else to move into his official residence.
It has been more than a year since his government was formed, and Netanyahu is still looking for excuses to keep the Foreign Ministry all to himself, as well as three other portfolios.
Many Israeli politicians have grown tired and impatient waiting for Netanyahu to leave. But there is still no Brexit in sight to come between Netanyahu and his official residence on the Jerusalem street named after former British prime minister and foreign secretary Lord Arthur Balfour.
Those impatient politicians received a glimmer of hope this week when Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit confirmed that he had ordered an initial probe of Netanyahu as part of a wider unspecified investigation. But two days later, it was leaked to media outlets that police still lacked enough evidence to question Netanyahu under caution.
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Even the most anti-Netanyahu journalists, who helped break the story about the probe, still doubt it is serious enough to bring him down. Then again, it has been repeatedly proven in Israel that one investigation often leads to another that could be career-ending.
This is not the first investigation of Netanyahu, and it is unlikely that it will be the last. Other investigations of Netanyahu broke with much greater fanfare and much more hope for his potential successors at the time.
Especially after a week in which former prime minister Ehud Olmert enjoyed his first furlough from prison, political corruption in Israel has ceased to shock anyone anymore. The unfortunate conventional wisdom that all politicians are corrupt in one way or another minimizes the impact all but an extremely serious probe can have on a tragically desensitized electorate.
So if corruption does not end up bringing down Netanyahu, what can? The most obvious answer is a strong enough political opponent.
With all due respect to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, former ministers Moshe Ya’alon and Gideon Sa’ar, former IDF chiefs Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, or whomever the Labor Party comes up with, their prospects for beating Netanyahu do not look overwhelmingly promising in the polls at this stage, though it is far from the next general election.
This was not a good week for Netanyahu’s opponent in the last election, opposition leader Isaac Herzog. Late Sunday night, he tweeted the wrong flag of Portugal, the country that won the European soccer championships.
At a meeting of a Labor institution Tuesday afternoon, his own party secretary-general, Hilik Bar, shouted at Herzog: “Buji, I am trying to save you from yourself, and you’re not letting me!”
And Tuesday night, the US Senate Subcommittee on Investigations published a report finding that OneVoice, an international nonprofit organization once funded by the State Department, actively campaigned against Netanyahu during Israel’s 2015 parliamentary election.
Even though the grassroots group that morphed into the anti-Netanyahu V15 received a $300,000 State Department grant that it used in part to build a database of voters who oppose Netanyahu, Herzog still could not beat him.
“We went up against Obama’s team and won!” 2015 Likud campaign strategist Aron Shaviv wrote on Twitter in a healthy dose of hyperbole. The timing of the report’s release on Tuesday was a compete coincidence. In a beautiful instance of irony, it just happened to be that the report about the blatant interference of a foreign government came out 18 hours after the Knesset passed into law a bill that requires greater transparency for NGOs that receive a majority of their funding from foreign governments.
The report also came out a day after Shaviv appeared to hint that the absentee balloting pushing organization he founded, iVoteIsrael, actively tried to unseat US President Barack Obama in the 2012 US election.
Due to iVoteIsrael, 80,000 absentee ballots were cast from the Jewish state, accounting for approximately 20 percent of all overseas absentee ballots cast worldwide in the race, even though Americans in Israel only account for three percent of overseas voters globally.
IVoteIsrael quadrupled Israeli voting from the previous US presidential election and punched above its weight in so-called swing states, such as Florida, where 7,500 ballots were cast from Israel, and Ohio, with 3,500 ballots.
But Shaviv stressed that “Netanyahu wasn’t involved in the campaign or even aware of it, and I don’t think he is aware of it to this day.”
Readers can decide for themselves whether Netanyahu knew of iVoteIsrael and whether Obama was aware of V15. But no one can deny that Americans have interfered in Israeli elections, and Israelis in American races.
It is also probably safe to say that the former has occurred more than the latter.
Former ambassador to the US and current Kulanu MK Michael Oren recalled to Jerusalem Post Knesset correspondent Lahav Harkov that Bill Clinton’s administration interceded to help Ehud Barak beat Netanyahu in 1999. After his own campaign strategists helped carry Barak to victory, Clinton said he was “happy as a kid with a new toy.”
“The issue of interference with democratic allies is a problem,” Oren said. “In 2012, I was in the middle of accusations of Netanyahu meddling in the American election. We need to make a concerted effort to keep out of one another’s electoral processes.”
The 1992 election in which Yitzhak Rabin defeated Yitzhak Shamir is often cited as an example of an Israeli race in which an American administration intervened. Former ambassador Zalman Shoval said there have been other instances of US Democrats who tried to help the Labor Party in Israel. But he said there was never a case as blatant as OneVoice receiving money directly from the State Department.
“OneVoice may have been legal, but it is not legitimate,” Shoval said. “The elected government of Israel was pursuing a process with the Palestinians at the time, so providing money to other groups promoting a different approach to solving the conflict was absolutely unacceptable.”
Netanyahu has been careful to stay out of the current presidential race in the US so far. But Israel has been dragged into the election, perhaps most interestingly with the revelation of an email to presumptive Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton by a former US ambassador to Israel, Thomas Pickering, when she was secretary of state.
In December 2011, Pickering wrote Clinton that she should encourage female-led nonviolent Gandhi-style Palestinian protests and demonstrations. He stressed that American involvement would need to be completely undetectable.
“The United States, in my view, cannot be seen to have stimulated, encouraged or be the power behind it for reasons you will understand better than anyone,” he wrote the secretary of state.
Pickering’s suggestion, like with OneVoice, is an example of America interfering with Israeli democracy behind the scenes. But American presidents have also not refrained from doing it front and center in Israel and in other countries.
Before Netanyahu spoke in Congress against the Iran deal, Obama came to Israel in 2013 and asked a handpicked crowd of left-wing and centrist students to pressure their government to take diplomatic steps.
In a trip to London ahead of the Brexit vote, Obama warned that Britain would be at the “back of the queue” in terms of trade deals with the US if it exited the European Union. His advice did not win over the British people.
So there might not be regime change ahead in Israel, but at least the Jewish state has the distinguished company of Britain on something: They share space on the list of the interfered.
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