Netanyahu’s new task: Projecting business as usual in highly unusual times

He is measured, and his moves – more so, perhaps, than his rhetoric – are cautious.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the nation  (photo credit: screenshot)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the nation
(photo credit: screenshot)
On Saturday night, a tie-less, concerned, somber-looking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked squarely into the lenses of the whirling cameras and in a live statement to the nation said that Israel had attacked Iranian and Syrian positions in Syria following the incursion of an Iranian drone. An Israeli F-16 was shot down in the process, the first fighter jet to be downed in action since 1982.
The next morning’s headlines were full of war talk. When would war break out in the North? Would Israel attack Iran? What would Russia do? At Sunday’s cabinet meeting Netanyahu talked wistfully about a country that comes together in times of crisis.
That lasted three days.
Until Tuesday night. Then, yet again, a concerned, somber-looking Netanyahu – this time with a tie – again looked squarely into the lenses of the whirling cameras and in a live statement to the nation said that he is innocent of what the police had just minutes earlier formally accused him of: bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Not only is he innocent, Netanyahu asserted, but he will finish out his current term in office and win another term when an election rolls around again late next year.
Netanyahu compares police recommendations to "swiss cheese," February 14, 2018 (Reuters)
The next morning’s headlines were full of talk of corruption. When would the long knives be drawn inside the coalition? Would Netanyahu continue to speak out against the police? What would Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit do? At a speech to the Federation of Local Authorities the following day, Netanyahu spoke of political adversaries who, over the years, would stop at nothing to bring him down.
What a week.
And then, in between those two dramatic developments, there was a third event – smaller, but noisy in its own way – in the middle. At the Likud faction meeting in the Knesset on Monday, Netanyahu hinted broadly that he had sought US approval for extending Israeli sovereignty over settlements in Area C of the West Bank.
The US quickly denied it, issuing a statement saying that reports that the US discussed an annexation plan with Israel “are false,” and forcing Netanyahu to release a clarification. That night’s television news began with reports of the “unprecedented” US reprimand and a White House furious at Jerusalem. To listen to the reports was to imagine that US President Donald Trump had suddenly morphed into Barack Obama.
Within a space of four days you had the following: A potential war in the North on Saturday; a hint of possibly annexing some settlements on Monday, followed by a moment of unpleasantness with the White House; and police recommendations to indict Netanyahu on Tuesday.
On the surface, each of those events – each of those dots – appear to stand independently and unconnected.
NOT SO, said Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni. In an Army Radio interview on Tuesday before the police released their recommendations against Netanyahu, she did what many will be doing from now until the next election (whenever that may be): She connected the dots.
Referring to Netanyahu’s comments on possible annexation, she said: “This is the story of this government. The prime minister who despite corruption wants to stay in power... allows Bayit Yehudi and some extremists in the Likud to work toward annexation, which will lead to an Arab majority and continued violence. That is the situation.”
Asked to comment on rival party Yesh Atid’s decision that day to withdraw from presenting a no-confidence motion because of the tense situation in the North, Livni responded: “I read the Yesh Atid tweet that in light of the security situation, and as long as Iran entrenches itself in Syria, there is no need to present no-confidence motions. And my response is this: the localized military incident is over, thank God, and I hope that it really ended.
“Iran, unfortunately, is going to entrench itself in Syria for a long time, and during this period do we have to let Netanyahu entrench himself in his seat, as long as Iran is in Syria? That it unacceptable.
“There was an incident. We supported the security decisions made and the IDF; we backed up the government and the security cabinet. The event ended, and now we have to put things on the table. The approach that says ‘Shhh, now we have to let Netanyahu make the decisions quietly, without bothering him’ is not relevant, and the approach that says it is good to have a corrupt prime minister because he deals well with security is also not acceptable to me.”
Livni’s comments were said just hours before the police’s recommendations. Now that the police have recommended indicting the prime minister, every step he takes, every move he makes, will be viewed through the prism of those allegations. From this point onward, Netanyahu’s motivations will be questioned on everything.
If he takes military action now in Syria to stop further Iranian entrenchment there, his critics will ask whether he is not just trying to divert the public’s attention from his legal woes. If he responds forcefully to attacks emanating from Gaza, the same charge will be thrown in his direction.
On the contrary, if he doesn’t take strong military action, there will be those saying that he is too preoccupied with his own legal woes to effectively run and protect the country.
If Netanyahu does go ahead and take steps leading to extending Israeli sovereignty to settlements in Area C, there will be those saying he is merely pandering to the right wing of his coalition, so that they don’t leave the government in his time of crisis. And if he doesn’t extend sovereignty, there will be those who say that he is trying to curry favor with the Left, get them to build an “etrog box” to protect him from indictment, as some famously advocated doing for Ariel Sharon.
We have all seen this movie before; this is not the first time the country’s prime minister has been under the cloud of a possible indictment. Sharon was under a real threat of indictment in 2004 in the so-called Greek island affair for allegedly receiving bribes from contractor David Appel to land a major Greek property deal. This was all unfolding during the period after Sharon declared an intention to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, leading to the phrase “the depth of the withdrawal will be dependent on the depth of the investigation” – meaning, in order to protect himself and win over the elites on the Left in favor of leaving Gaza, he would go forward with the withdrawal no matter what.
Voices on the Right have been heard in recent months warning that Netanyahu may follow a similar approach, and that to win sympathy on the Left to protect himself against indictment, he will eventually offer the Palestinians wide-ranging concessions. But one could argue the exact opposite, that following the recommendations, the prime minister may tack heavily to the Right to ensure that Bayit Yehudi continues to support him and not threaten to leave the government over the alleged corruption issues.
WHICH RAISES the question: With this cloud now hanging over his head, and everyone viewing everything he does through the prism of Case 1000 and Case 2000, how will the prime minister actually govern?
A good indication of his strategy came on Thursday, when he left all his legal woes behind and went to Munich for the weekend to take part in the Munich Security Conference. Considering the rather precarious political situation the recommendations left him, Netanyahu could have been excused for canceling.
But he didn’t cancel. Not only did he not cancel, according to sources in his office he didn’t even consider canceling. He wants to project a business-as-usual aura. It was, as one Western diplomatic said, “classic Bibi. He does his international stuff as if nothing has happened.”
But something has happened; of that there can be no denial. The police move – though not legally binding on anyone – was significant. The degree to which it will have an impact on Netanyahu’s decisions will be seen in the coming weeks.
One of the benefits of having a prime minister who is just a month short of having been in power for nine consecutive years is that you have a pretty good idea of what to expect; he has a track record. People here and leaders in capitals abroad know well how Netanyahu operates.
He is measured, and his moves – more so, perhaps, than his rhetoric – are cautious. As prime minister now all told for some 12 years (when taking into account his first term, from 1996 to 1999), he has not rushed headlong into military engagements or into massive building beyond the Green Line.
If now, suddenly, Netanyahu throws caution to the wind and takes actions that are significantly at odds with measures he has taken up until now – steps, on issues of either war or peace, that seem erratic and out of character – then questions could legitimately be raised about his motivations.
For the time being, however, he is taking pains to project business as usual, even in these highly unusual times.