Game of thrones: Israel prepares for Netanyahu's potential departure

As corruption investigations pile up, Benjamin Netanyahu’s potential early departure is likely to produce an early election with unpredictable results.

Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
“CAN I have one of your cigars?” a visitor to the White House is said to have once asked Calvin Coolidge. The president asked why and was told that the man collects famous people’s cigar bands. Coolidge considered the unexpected request and opened a handsome case, picked an expensive cigar, separated its ring, gave the ring to the visitor and kept the cigar for himself.
That kind of frugality would not have been necessary with Benjamin Netanyahu whose supply of cigars in recent years appears to have been steady, extensive and free of charge. Politically, however, the prime minister’s cigars may prove to have been more expensive than their retail price considering that they, and other perks he allegedly received from private businessmen, are now the subject of a police investigation that might cost him his job.
The case the police is calling File 1000, which explores a supply channel of quality cigars and cases of pink champagne to the Netanyahu household from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, is the lesser of three investigations involving Netanyahu. The others involve an influence deal with the publisher of a major Israeli newspaper and an untendered purchase of German submarines.
Benjamin Netanyahu dismissive of corruption allegations on January 2, 2017
Collectively, these probes are unsettling the political system where Netanyahu’s potentially premature departure is expected to produce an early election with unpredictable results.
THE THREE probes all involve potential bribery aspects but are nonetheless completely unrelated, not only in their circumstances but also in their substance: one is about personal conduct; the other about influence peddling; and the third about governance.
The first file, about systematic deliveries of goods to the prime minister and his family by private individuals, reportedly adds up to hundreds of thousands of shekels of illegal gifts extended regularly over years. Netanyahu, speaking during question time in the Knesset plenary, said in his defense that Milchan is his friend and there is no law against receiving gifts from friends.
Had the legal aspect been this simple, it is doubtful police would have questioned Netanyahu under caution concerning the allegations whose validation will depend on the size, frequency and purpose of the gifts received, as well as the definition of friendship. One potential benefit Milchan might have received for his generosity is a phone call in which Netanyahu reportedly asked then-secretary of state John Kerry to help extend Milchan’s long-term visa to the US.
The second file is about talks held in 2014 between Netanyahu and Arnon “Noni” Mozes, publisher of the mass-circulation Yediot Ahronot daily.
Allegedly, Mozes was to invert his newspaper’s political line and deliver Netanyahu favorable coverage, while Netanyahu was to get Yediot’s main competitor, Israel Hayom, to stop publishing the weekend supplement ‒ its most journalistically powerful section. Israel Hayom’s publisher, American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, is a close friend of Netanyahu. Adelson launched the free daily in 2007 as a response to Yediot’s constant attacks on Netanyahu.
Israel Hayom’s weekend circulation of more than 500,000 and its underpriced ad rates have sharply reduced the revenues of the privately held Yediot.
This investigation, which police labeled File 2000, is based on a conversation it found recorded on the smartphone of former Netanyahu aide Ari Harow during an investigation over a suspected conflict of interest while he served as the prime minister’s chief of staff.
If validated, this deal would imply that Mozes effectively auctioned his newspaper’s political line and that Netanyahu effectively offered to improve the market conditions of a private business in return for the paper’s assistance in paving Netanyahu’s way to electoral victory.
Finally, in what it calls File 3000, police are investigating the administrative process that resulted in the IDF’s purchases from Germany in recent years of submarines valued at $340 million each ‒ the most expensive single weapon in Israel’s possession.
Allegedly, Netanyahu disregarded then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and canceled an international tender for the purchase of the submarines in order to hand the mega contract directly to the German corporation ThyssenKrupp. While at it, Netanyahu reportedly failed to inform the attorney general, in his capacity as the government’s legal adviser, that ThyssenKrupp’s representative is the prime minister’s confidante and second cousin, David Shimron.
There have been no reports or suggestions that Netanyahu is suspected of personally receiving funds in the wake of this deal. However, his cousin’s commission is believed to have been hefty, and its circumstances might raise bribery suspicions.
Beyond this, the sums involved and the fact that Ya’alon is a key witness against Netanyahu’s conduct makes this case particularly potent because it could shatter Netanyahu’s image as an impartial servant of Israel’s security.
This, in brief, is the investigative background against which the political system will be maneuvering as the 20th Knesset enters its third year.
PROCEDURALLY, ALL are waiting for the police to complete its investigations, a process that Inspector General Roni Alsheikh has said should take no more than “weeks,” though he was referring only to the affairs involving Milchan and Mozes. The submarine probe, which had yet to be publicized when Alsheikh spoke, will likely take longer.
In any event, once police finish investigating files 1000 and 2000, the ball will pass to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit who will have to decide whether or not to press charges.
Appointed by Netanyahu after having previously served as his cabinet secretary, some suspect Mandelblit will do all in his power to avoid indicting Netanyahu. Others, noting the reputation he earned when he served as the IDF’s attorney general at the rank of major general, believe Mandelblit will make a decision based on nothing but the evidence presented by police, an assumption that is based on Mandelblit’s decision to order the police probe in the first place.
Though nothing will happen before these two processes mature, the political system is already swarming with calculations, scenarios and theories concerning what might unfold should the investigations piling up around him lead Netanyahu to resign.
Legally, it should be noted, a cabinet member’s indictment does not require a resignation, though precedent has been such, and, in the case of Ehud Olmert, the resignation came even before the indictments.
Politically, however, an indictment will likely assume a life of its own, first of all in terms of Netanyahu’s public standing.
Most voters do not regularly smoke cigars and sip pink champagne ‒ cheap or expensive ‒ let alone free of charge. That includes Netanyahu’s voters, some of whom might see in such conduct reason to elect a more modest successor. Similarly, some of Netanyahu’s voters might prefer a prime minister who was never suspected of maneuvering a publisher to compromise his duty to his readers or of tinkering with a military tender, for whatever reason.
That might evolve later. But, for now, up in the corridors of power, Netanyahu’s followers and allies are circling the wagons around him.
Likud activists mostly say that Netanyahu is being persecuted by what they deride as a hostile media and legal system. Among the ministers, at the same time, all are careful not to appear as if to be eyeing the throne. That also goes for the ruling party’s allies, whose leaders quickly disarmed members of the opposition who were hoping to produce an alternative government within the current Knesset.
An alternative government would presumably be led by Labor and Yesh Atid, with leaders Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid serving as prime minister and foreign minister, respectively. However, for such a coalition to win the Knesset’s approval, it would need to include at least three of Netanyahu’s five coalition partners.
This prospect was dealt a serious blow when Interior Minister Arye Deri said that in the event that Netanyahu resigns, his party, Shas, would call for an early election. Deri’s vow leaves the other ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, no choice but to follow his lead, because there is no way it will enter, alone, a government that includes the liberal Lapid and ultra-liberal Meretz faction.
Speculation concerning an alternative government focuses on the current coalition’s least right-wing component, the 10-member Kulanu faction whose leader, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, said sarcastically, “I only receive gifts at weddings” and “cigars stink.” Some in Labor have been toying with the thought that, if offered the premiership, Kahlon could be enlisted for an alternative coalition.
Such a maneuver, besides being a nonstarter without the ultra-Orthodox parties, is unaffordable for Kahlon whose target constituency is the same center-right that is Netanyahu’s electoral backbone. Appearing in that milieu in the role of Brutus might prove to be electoral suicide.
A resignation by Netanyahu would force Likud to pick a successor not in the way Netanyahu replaced Yitzhak Shamir in 1992 through a primary election that took months to prepare, but the way Shamir succeeded Menachem Begin in 1983 and as Ariel Sharon replaced Netanyahu in 1999 ‒ through votes in party forums.
As things currently appear, the best-positioned candidate in such a case would be Transportation Minister Israel Katz.
The 61-year-old Katz has been a Likud activist since his twenties, knows its apparatus intimately, and has a track record as an able minister who initiated and delivered complex public works projects that expanded and upgraded Israel’s system of highways and railways.
Another contender would have been 60-year-old Minister-without-Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi, who also brings extensive ministerial experience and decades of party work. However, last decade, Hanegbi followed Sharon as he launched the disengagement from Gaza, split Likud and established Kadima. This history will work against Hanegbi, who may, indeed, prefer to back someone else rather than launch a candidacy and risk defeat.
A THIRD candidate could be Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan. However, at 47, he is likely to be seen among party members as less ripe and experienced than Katz.
A dark horse candidate could be 58-yearold Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. A former prisoner of Zion who acquired perfect Hebrew by studying it under the KGB’s nose, the modern-Orthodox Edelstein has earned respect as a consensual and bridging speaker despite being of a Greater Israel ideology.
Whoever Likud places at its helm will be challenged from outside by three of its former members: Naftali Bennett, Ya’alon, and Kahlon. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is currently not in a public position to join this pack due to his party’s entanglement in an elaborate bribery investigation.
Of the three, Bennett is in the worst position because he leads a party in which many will not join a merger with Likud.
Bennett has remolded a strictly Orthodox party into a pluralistic movement that welcomes secularists such as Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. However, this unique formula has exhausted itself electorally, peaking in 2013 at 12 seats before losing a third of them in 2015.
The Likud, for its part, is not likely to crown a competing party’s leader as its own head, something it has never done in its 43 years.
Kahlon’s electoral prospects may be better because he appeals to a broad swath of Likud’s power base; has been functioning reasonably as finance minister while generally respectful of the prime minister; and at the same time is emerging as Netanyahu’s socially humble and morally impeccable alternative.
That also goes for Ya’alon, a soldier, gentleman and farmer who, while others smoked cigars, spent some of his best years milking cows on the Arava desert’s Kibbutz Grofit. Between them, Ya’alon and Kahlon can theoretically attract pretty much anyone who ever voted for Netanyahu.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Labor, if elections were to be held today, would almost certainly be surpassed by the increasingly popular Lapid who, according to some polls, might also get more votes than Likud.
Still, Lapid stands little chance of succeeding Netanyahu. The centrist electorate he is wooing is too small to form a majority with the Left, and will likely remain so whatever Netanyahu’s personal fate.
It follows that, if the current dynamics lead to Netanyahu’s departure, his successor will emerge from Likud’s current or former ranks. Indeed, the most potent configuration would be a merger between Kahlon and Ya’alon under either’s leadership.
Such a team would be in a position to harness and, in fact, inherit Likud, and at the same time cobble together a workable coalition that will comfortably accommodate Lapid and happily also include Labor.
A Kahlon-Ya’alon duo would form a unique spearhead of pragmatic nationalists who bring between them everything a Likud voter holds dear ‒ military valor, social sensitivity, patriotic credentials and economic experience. On top of these, they will radiate a personal humility and ascetic lifestyle that many will find a refreshing break from the scandals that, if such a transition transpires, will be recalled as its cause.