Why Benjamin Netanyahu's week may have gone from bad to worse

Netanyahu’s tough week on multiple fronts ends with news: His likely pre-hearing indictment will come before the next election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, December 16th, 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, December 16th, 2018
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked at the Globes Israel Business Conference on Wednesday how many hours of sleep he gets at night, he said “Between seven and eight, and if I can, nine.”
It could be reassuring for the public to know that their leader gets a full night of sleep. After all, he is 69 years old.
And one of the key messages of War and Peace, delivered by Russian Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov ahead of an unsuccessful battle against Napoleon, is “There is nothing more important than to have a good night’s sleep.”
The only problem with Netanyahu’s statement is the testimony of countless former Netanyahu aides that it’s not even close to true.
The aides said that when they worked for Netanyahu, they often worked late into the night with him and had to be back on duty bright and early the next morning. Especially at stressful times, there were plenty of nearly sleepless nights.
“I slept with Netanyahu, night after night after night,” the wife of one former Netanyahu adviser joked, referring to the many calls her husband received after midnight.
THIS WEEK was undoubtedly one of those stressful times, when the prime minister and his small cadre of advisers have had to face crises on multiple fronts.
The worst news of the week for Netanyahu came on the diplomatic front, when US President Donald Trump tweeted that he would be removing all US troops from Syria. While Netanyahu was told of the decision in advance, he looked pale and sleepless when he was asked to respond to the move, which will leave Israel to face an angry Russia on its border without America’s help.
On the security front, this week was obviously better than last week, which was disastrous. And no Israelis have been killed since last Thursday, when two soldiers were killed and newborn baby Amiad Israel Ish-Ran died following a terrorist attack that nearly killed his mother.
But the shooter from the Givat Assaf attack has not been caught, and neither has the entire cell from the Ofra attack, so the security situation remains tense in Judea and Samaria. And while Operation Northern Shield has gone well so far, it can still flare up at any point, especially when the IDF destroys tunnels in disputed areas on the Lebanese border.
Only a third of the public is satisfied with Netanyahu’s performance as defense minister, according to a Midgam poll broadcast Sunday night on Channel 2.
The poll found that 58% of Israelis are unsatisfied with Netanyahu’s performance as defense minister, 33% are satisfied, and 9% do not know. That 33% was divided among 26% who said they were somewhat satisfied and only 7% who said they were very satisfied.
While it is arguably unfair to take such a poll immediately after the funerals of two IDF soldiers and a newborn baby, it is safe to assume that Netanyahu never dreamed that only 7% of Israelis would be very satisfied with the job he is doing, and he no longer has a defense minister to accept blows for him on the security front.
The same poll found the public to be angry on the economic front. The nightly news led with bad news on the economy most days this week, with significant price increases set to take effect soon, when 2019 begins. Socioeconomic protesters have adopted the French yellow vest gimmick, with mixed results.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon looked uncharacteristically angry, when speaking about the economic situation in his Kulanu faction meeting on Monday. But by the end of the week, he had gotten the key price increases canceled, thanks to steps his ministry took.
Kahlon, though, gave Netanyahu bad news on the legal front, when he reiterated Thursday morning that if “the attorney-general decides to indict Netanyahu after his hearing, he cannot continue to serve as prime minister.”
The timing of that hearing became clearer this week, when State Attorney Shai Nitzan revealed that the prosecutors in his office had recommended charges against Netanyahu to Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, which according to leaks are bribery in two cases and fraud and breach of trust in another. Nitzan himself said deliberations with Mandelblit would start already next week.
Last month’s leaks from the Attorney-General’s Office indicated that the soonest Mandelblit’s pre-hearing indictment of Netanyahu was expected was “around Passover,” which starts April 19. But Wednesday night, reporters were told he would be done sooner – in February or March.
Mandelblit himself hinted Thursday that those leaks were true, when he said that his office would “work quickly” on Netanyahu’s cases. Assuming they are true, the biggest news of the week in retrospect might be that the next election can no longer take place before Mandelblit’s expected decision to indict Netanyahu on bribery charges in at least one of the cases, pending the hearing, which would take place six months later.
The election is not expected to be initiated before mid-January, when Operation Northern Shield is set to end and the Supreme Court deadline for passing a new conscription bill passes. But even in the extremely unlikely scenario that Netanyahu decides to initiate an election next week, it still would not be held before Mandelblit’s decision.
That means that, thanks to inevitable leaks, voters will know before they go to the polls what Netanyahu did in the Bezeq-Walla affair (Case 4000), expensive gift affair (Case 1000) and newspaper collusion affair (Case 2000).
This could be good news or bad news for the prime minister.
Netanyahu could persuade the public that the charges are pathetic and irrelevant, and his continued successes on the diplomatic, security and economic fronts matter so much more.
Or perhaps the Center-Left will get its act together and unite behind a clean leader who could take advantage of the charges against Netanyahu and ride an anticorruption wave to the Prime Minister’s Office.
To that end, the Central Stream, the largest group of Labor activists, started an effort this week to persuade Zionist Union and Yesh Atid MKs and former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz that they all must run together.
But between now and then, there is much work to be done and much sleep to be had as well. When Netanyahu rests this weekend, he can think about the challenges that lie ahead next week, including a Supreme Court deadline Tuesday to explain why he holds so many portfolios.
Maybe if, by the end of next week, Netanyahu will no longer be prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, health minister and aliyah and integration minister, he will truly be able to get an extra hour or two of sleep at night.