Benjamin Netanyahu is manipulative, petty and deceitful. He is determined to win, regardless of the damage wrought by victory. He has few of the habits of the admirable statesman, and most of the hallmarks of political genius. This charmless man has steered Israel through the Obama presidency and the Arab Spring; presided over an economic and hi-tech boom; avoided open war with Iran and contained Hamas; and expanded Israel’s diplomatic links in Asia, South America, Africa and, in smaller but significant ways, with previously hostile Sunni Arab states.
All that may no longer be enough. With elections less than six weeks away and Likud lagging in the polls, Israelis must choose between the low quality of Netanyahu’s character and the high quantity of his political achievements — and between Netanyahu, a skilled and experienced leader, and a coalition of insufficiently experienced rivals.
Netanyahu’s latest low trick, inviting the racist fringe into the Knesset in a scheme to nullify the hard-right Jewish vote that is deserting the Likud, has raised media outrage both at home and in the diaspora. A more serious threat to his chances in April is today’s announcement by attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit of criminal charges including breach of trust, bribery and fraud.
As Alan Dershowitz was quick to object in an open letter to Mandelblit, judicial activism during an election season is bad for Israeli democracy. The timing of Mandelblit’s announcement suggests that the attorney-general thinks that Netanyahu presents a greater threat to Israel’s future. But does he?
Like the contents of the caskets in The Merchant of Venice, the three cases against Netanyahu are not of equal value. The first, Case 1000, concerns the acquisition by Netanyahu and his wife Sara of cigars, Champagne and jewelry to the value of over $130,000 from Arnon Milchan, an Israeli movie producer in Hollywood. Milchan claims that the Netanyahus solicited these gifts. Mandelblit is charging Netanyahu with the somewhat nebulous offense of breach of trust, as well as fraud and ‘acting in favor’ of Milchan.
Case 2000, the second charge against Netanyahu, suggests corruption on a greater scale. In 2015, Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, owner of Israel’s top-selling newspaper, Yediot Achronot, are alleged to have conspired a deal in which Mozes would supply positive coverage of Netanyahu if Netanyahu passed legislation that promised to depress sales of a rival newspaper, Israel Ha-Yom. But when the bill came to the Knesset, Netanyahu voted against it, and risked a general election. So there’s a motive for malpractice, and evidence of intent too — enough for charges of fraud and breach of trust — but not much more, at least for now.
Dershowitz is especially exercised about Case 2000, because it uses the attorney-general’s wide-ranging powers to intrude into ‘the delicate, and legally protected relationship between government officials and the media’. Dershowitz has less to say about Mandelblit’s third case. In this, Case 4000, Netanyahu is alleged to have pushed for regulations that would benefit Shaul Elovitch, the biggest shareholder in Bezeq, Israel’s biggest telecoms company, in return for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned news site Walla. Netanyahu is again charged with fraud and breach of trust, and he and Elovitch are charged with bribery.
Three cases — one petty but trivial, one serious but obscure, one serious and consequential — all turning on backroom deals with the media. Today, Netanyahu called Mandelblit’s move an ‘attempted political assassination’. For confirmation, see Wednesday’s small but telling poll by the Times of Israel. This found that Mandelblit’s announcement would depress Likud’s share of the vote from 19 percent to 15 percent, and raise the vote of his upstart challengers, the Blue and White coalition, from 23 percent to 26 percent.
Blue and White is a coalition of two centrist parties. One is the mini-party of ex-general Benny Gantz, who has no political experience, the other is led by Yair Lapid, an ex-TV host and erstwhile cabinet minister whose past demonstrates that Netanyahu is not alone in exploiting the nexus of media and politics. Should they win in April, the two have agreed to rotate the prime ministership, with Moshe Ya’alon, a politically experienced ex-general, as defense minister.
The landscape of Israeli politics is littered with the smashed chariots of military heroes who promised to fix civilian politics, but crashed in the chicanes of Knesset procedure. It is also littered with the remains of centrist parties that surged in early polls only to turn out to be low-scoring personality cults. Gantz is a newcomer, and Lapid lacks security credentials. The adroitness with which Netanyahu negotiates dodgy media deals is the domestic downside of his skill in negotiating a region in chaos, and his opening of new diplomatic horizons for Israel. Gantz, Lapid and Ya’alon are campaigning against economic inequity, another downside of the Netanyahu years, but little in their records suggests they possess his sense of political judgement.
Perhaps that’s why the voters haven’t conclusively abandoned Netanyahu. Majorities of voters in the Times of Israel poll think that his time is up, that Mandelblit’s charges are ‘extremely serious’, and that Netanyahu should stand down if he is indicted. But they also trust him over Gantz on security (41 percent to 30 percent), and are largely untroubled by Netanyahu’s dalliance with the racist fringe. They also, albeit by a tight margin, still prefer Netanyahu to be their next prime minister.
Most of Israel’s wars have been fought in less than six weeks. This one has only just begun. Netanyahu is far from beaten, and is still more than capable of attaining the dubious distinction of becoming Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, and the first to be indicted on criminal charges while in office.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.