The real Bibi: Corrupt politico or indispensable internationalist?

So far, Netanyahu’s maneuvers seem to be working.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses AIPAC 2018 Conference (YouTube/IsraeliPM)
WASHINGTON – It was Benjamin Netanyahu at his best. Rounds of applause, standing ovations, and rolling bouts of laughter after every choreographed joke. The speech – some of it TED Talk-style, and named for a Clint Eastwood movie – was as perfect as could be expected from a man who has mastered the art of speech-making as Israel’s prime minister.
It was hard though not to imagine what was going through Netanyahu’s mind as he stood there waving at the crowd and basking in its roaring approval. Just days earlier, he had spent five hours being questioned by police over allegations that he gave multi-million-shekel tax breaks to Bezeq in exchange for positive coverage from Walla; two weeks before that, the police had recommended charging him with two counts of bribery in two other criminal investigations; and as he stood there on the podium, his coalition back home in Jerusalem seemed to be falling apart, as haredi parties once again tried to extort a politically weak prime minister.
At one point, a woman yelled out from the crowd, “We love you Bibi,” expressing a sentiment shared by many of the AIPAC delegates who are baffled why Israelis do not.
“He is a great orator, a world-class leader, and makes us proud,” one influential Jewish leader told me. “Don’t you in Israel get it?” The truth is that Israelis do get it.
When Netanyahu speaks at the United Nations or at AIPAC, Israelis are genuinely proud. When he holds up the wreckage of an Iranian drone shot down over Israel – as he did in a speech in Munich last month – and calls on Iran’s foreign minister to take it home with him, Israelis feel proud. And when he holds his fifth meeting with President Donald Trump – the most of any world leader – Israelis recognize the importance.
Israelis also know that there probably is not another politician in Israel today who would be able to speak like Netanyahu or play such a prominent role on the international stage. In January, for example, Netanyahu flew to India where he was received like royalty, and then returned to Israel where he welcomed Vice President Mike Pence.
The prime minister then flew to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin, and then to Munich to meet with Trump.
The thing is, Israelis also see the other Netanyahu, the one who does not appear publicly when visiting Moscow, New Delhi or Washington. This is the Netanyahu who obsessively attacks the press, works to weaken and undermine the police and the judicial system, and who encourages racial divisiveness.
This is the Netanyahu whose wife will stand trial for misuse of public funds, and who police have already recommended be charged with bribery.
This is the Netanyahu who is still under investigation in a third bribery case, and whose two closest associates – David Shimron and Yitzhak Molcho – are caught up in what might be the most controversial and sensitive investigation in the state’s history: corruption surrounding the submarine deal with Germany.
In other words, while Israelis recognize Netanyahu’s greatness and brilliance, they also see his faults and his negative side. This is the side that includes the continual surrender to demands by his haredi coalition partners at the expense of religious freedom and pluralism, the side that neglects social issues and the periphery.
This discrepancy explains the difference in the way Netanyahu is viewed in Washington compared with in Israel. It is not, as some pundits have claimed, that AIPAC delegates are simply right-wing followers of Netanyahu. It is that they view him through the prism of what they see: an Israeli leader who is bringing honor to the Jews on the world stage.
This different vantage point also explains the way Israelis tend to view American presidents. Israelis, for example, cannot understand how Jews overwhelmingly voted for, and supported, Barack Obama. But that is because Israelis looked at Obama only through an Israeli prism. They didn’t give any thought to his domestic policies, his tax reforms, his immigration policies or his overall foreign policy. They saw only one Obama: the one who consistently clashed with Israel.
This difference is why Netanyahu’s speech was strange to some Israelis.
They connected to the first half that praised the country and touted its vibrancy and prowess, but were not exactly sure what he meant when he declared that “darkness is descending on our region.”
Israelis are concerned about Iran’s presence in Syria, Hezbollah’s growing missile arsenal, and Hamas’s continued effort to dig attack tunnels under the Gaza border. Nevertheless, Israelis also know that Israel has never been stronger, that after 70 years of statehood, there is no enemy along our borders capable of conquering territory. That as bad as Iran is (and it is bad), it does not yet pose an existential threat to the Jewish state.
While there are threats and challenges, as Netanyahu noted in the first half of his speech, Israel is thriving. Equality is growing, society is more tolerant, and the economy is booming. What Netanyahu did not mention is that the investigations against him are part of the proof. They show that no one is above the law, that even a powerful prime minister who has ruled for a total of 12 years is not immune.
Israelis, by the way, have mixed feelings when it comes to Netanyahu. As recent polls have shown, on the one hand they believe he is corrupt and think that the investigations undermine his ability to run the country.
However, they also have difficulty imagining a different leader. If an election were held now, poll after poll has shown, the Likud under Netanyahu would still come out on top.
When reviewing Netanyahu’s nine consecutive years as prime minister, this has been his most brilliant achievement: getting Israelis to believe that there is no alternative to his leadership, that no other politician in the Knesset (there are 119 others) or outside can lead the country.
Polls, though, are seductive and dangerous. Netanyahu is known to frequently poll the public on almost everything, a habit that Yair Lapid has adopted as well. But they are not always reliable, and can lead a politician to make a hasty decision and go to elections, based on numbers that were gathered before the negative campaigning begin.
That is why while Netanyahu’s speech was given in Washington, it wasn’t really intended for AIPAC and its delegates. The speech was for the citizens of Israel who were thousands of miles away. Netanyahu needed to show Israelis that he still has it, that he can still perform, that he is still at the top of his game. He needed to show Israelis why they need him, why he is indispensable and why it would be a mistake to allow the attorney-general to indict him.
So far, Netanyahu’s maneuvers seem to be working. While it remains unclear what will come of the current coalition crisis over demands by ultra-Orthodox parties to pass IDF draft legislation, Netanyahu could still instigate an early election at any time.
“No one really knows what he is thinking,” one top minister told me this week. “It will really be up to him when the next election will be held.”
For now, this is true. Both Naftali Bennett of Bayit Yehudi and Moshe Kahlon of Kulanu have announced that they will not demand Netanyahu resign as long as he has not been indicted.
Nevertheless, this could change. First, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit could decide to speed up his decision on an indictment, and surprise everyone who has predicted it will take him a year to decide what to do.
Second, there is always the possibility that another investigation will sprout out of the current ones.
If, for example, Netanyahu suddenly becomes a suspect in the submarine affair, this could be a game-changer.
Netanyahu has long prided himself on being Israel’s “Mr. Security.” If he suddenly is suspected of working against the country’s national security, Bennett’s and Kahlon’s calculus could change as well.
Time will tell how this will all play out. In the meantime, you can be sure of one thing: Netanyahu will continue to demonstrate his indispensability, and sooner or later an election will be called. That is when Israelis will need to decide which Netanyahu they will want to see when casting their ballots – the corrupt politico, or the indispensable internationalist.