Very few leaders have had the wisdom to vacate their seat at the height of their power. Most start with great promise and hope, and end their tenure with a whimper. After eight consecutive years as the Israeli prime minister, the allegations of corruption and misuse of public funds made against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara have become a source of national embarrassment.
The Netanyahus increasingly remind one of the royal French couple King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette on the eve of the French Revolution. They represent, at best, a nouveau riche decadence, putting their personal interests above those of the country. In the twilight of his political life, Prime Minister Netanyahu is ready to drag the country down with him, leaving a trail of destruction and deep divisions through incitement and spreading fear.
Netanyahu is not the first, and probably not the last Israeli politician to be accused of alleged corrupt behavior. The list of convicted senior politicians is worryingly long. It almost begs the question of whether Israel has one of the most corrupt political systems in the world, or alternatively one of the most efficient and diligent law-enforcement authorities. While the jury might record an open verdict on this question, and the Netanyahus are both entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise, their conduct indisputably demonstrates unprecedented shamelessness and a lack of any moral backbone.
No one more than Netanyahu epitomizes Samuel Johnson’s 18th century observation that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” In a scary yet pathetic demonstration of this, Netanyahu convened a political horror show this week, featuring thousands of Likud Party members in a support rally for him and his wife. It was his opportunity to launch a vicious attack on the “left” and the “media,” blaming them not only for conspiring to bring down his premiership undemocratically, but for being against both the Likud and Israel’s national interests.
He stopped short of calling them plain and simple traitors, but the message was clear. There on stage in front of his die-hard supporters, Netanyahu was at his opportunistic worst. Like a drowning man clutching at straws, he incited his critics, mastered the use of “alternative facts,” and stopped short of nothing in his aim to deflect from the allegations made against him.
In Netanyahu’s make-believe version of events, he and his wife are victims of the left and the media because: “They know that they can’t beat us at the polls, so they’re trying to bypass democracy and topple us without elections … Their goal is to apply unacceptable and incessant pressure on law enforcement authorities to indict at all costs, regardless of the truth and justice.”
Infuriatingly, this message is reminiscent of some the darkest regimes in history, as a bold attempt to silence political opponents, freedom of speech and the press, to serve his hunger, to retain power and avoid potentially ending up behind bars.
The Israeli prime minister epitomizes Samuel Johnson’s observation that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
Netanyahu would not have embarked on such a public display of disregard of the very foundations of Israel’s democracy had he not felt that the police were making headway in finding incriminating evidence against him. The decision by Ari Harow — for years one of Netanyahu’s closest political associates, as his former chief of staff — to sign an agreement with the police to become a state witness against him evidently tipped Netanyahu over the edge. What makes Harow the perfect state witness is his inside information about the Netanyahus; the police seem to be convinced that there is enough evidence. The case consequently became a cliff-hanger in which Netanyahu is considerably disadvantaged by being the bigger fish — and one the law enforcement authorities would prefer to fry.
Staggeringly, in the two main affairs in which Netanyahu is being investigated, he is not contesting the incriminating facts pointing to him. In his impudence he denies any wrongdoing. He admits that he received gifts in the form of expensive Champagne, cigars and jewelry from businessmen with clear economic interests in Israel. Does he genuinely believe his own argument that he cannot see anything wrong with this standard of behavior in public life? It is a total eclipse of judgment out of greed. In the other affair Netanyahu, recorded on Harow’s smartphone, allegedly offered a newspaper publisher economic benefits in exchange for more favorable coverage. Once more his flimsy excuse of “only” playing mind games with the publisher looks extremely questionable. Is that what a prime minister of a country with serious challenges on many fronts should occupy himself with?
Netanyahu will not resign unless he is forced by an indictment; it is not in his DNA, as he lacks both integrity and decency. I would be very surprised if his position will not gradually be eroded, even without an immediate indictment. Before long his own political allies will start seeing him as a political liability. Then the most likely outcome will be fresh elections sometime next spring. Once out of office, Netanyahu will have the time to reflect on his wasted years in power, devoid of achievements, and the huge damage done to good governance and Israel’s democracy, leaving a legacy of hatred and discord.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.