Ultimately, it is in the hands of Israel’s attorney general Avichai Mandelblit to decide, in consultation with state prosecutors, whether the police evidence is strong enough to merit charges. However, whatever his decision, or if it comes to it, that of the courts, Netanyahu’s behavior in office and his reckless attacks on Israel’s law enforcement agencies have left him discredited and morally bankrupt.
Regardless of these corruption allegations, Netanyahu has been in the twilight of his political career for quite some time. There is nothing in terms of political leadership that he can add to his 12 years as prime minister. He has neither a vision nor a strategy for any of the crucial issues that the country is facing. He is hanging in there for as long as he can, as if the country’s premiership were his private domain for as long as he lives. The corruption scandals that he is engulfed in give the prime minister and his close associates a further strong incentive to stay in power. He prefers to contest the serious charges against him while holding the most powerful position in the land, enabling him to intimidate police chiefs, his investigators, the attorney general, the state prosecution and the media, and to manipulate public opinion, than to face the accusations as a private citizen. His relentless political survival instinct is further heightened by the fact that the allegations against him — in which his wife is also implicated — could lead not only to the loss of the premiership, but also put him behind bars.
In the first case, known as Case 1000, it is alleged that the Netanyahus systematically received from the Israeli-American Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan champagne, cigars, jewellery and clothing, on demand, valued at over 1 million shekels (around $285,000). Following his second election as prime minister in 2009, the gifts he received increased significantly, to the extent that Milchan asked James Packer, an Australian businessman, to help him finance the Israeli prime minister and his wife’s lavish lifestyle. The Israeli police have outlined a long list of illegal benefits Milchan allegedly enjoyed as a result of his gift-fuelled friendship with Netanyahu, which constitutes bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
In Case 2000, the police suggest that Netanyahu negotiated trading favours with Arnon Mozes, publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, one of Israel’s leading newspapers, to impede the circulation of a rival newspaper in exchange for more favorable coverage by the newspaper. Such a deal would have been worth millions of shekels for the newspaper. Netanyahu’s and Mozes’s defense has been that these were not serious discussions; each claims to have been attempting to entrap the other in an effort to expose the other’s deceitfulness. They seem to have been rather successful at this, but the police say that it is also unlawful, and similar to Case 1000, it amounts to offering and receiving bribes, fraud, and breach of trust on the prime minister’s side.
The evidence against the Israeli prime minister reveals a hedonistic and decadent man who has lost the ability to distinguish between the state and himself, and a politician who will stop at nothing to remain in power.
Netanyahu is attempting to prevent his case from reaching court by claiming that he is the victim of a conspiracy. According to him, Israel’s left, seeing it as the only way to end his reign, is conspiring with the media and, aided by the police, is pursuing him. In his calculated delusion he conveniently separates his admission of the facts of both cases against him, something that he has done repeatedly, from the wrongdoing that they entail. Even if neither case ends in indictment, and it is almost inconceivable that the attorney general will reject the police recommendations, at least on the lesser charge of breach of trust, it leaves Netanyahu politically weak and vulnerable, and morally compromised. Why is he spending so much of his energy and time helping his uber-wealthy “friends,” rather than, for instance, supporting the 1.8 million Israelis, half of them children, who live below the poverty line? Is this the best use of time for a leader who claims that he has devoted all his life to the security and prosperity of his country that, according to him, faces existential threats?
If the first case reveals a hedonistic and decadent prime minister who has lost the ability to distinguish between the state and himself and his family, the second case exposes a politician who will stop at nothing to remain in power, including interfering with free and honest media. The only major surprise in the police’s announcements this week was that their star witness is none other than Netanyahu’s main rival for the post of the prime minister, Yair Lapid. Lapid was finance minister when Netanyahu as prime minister apparently pushed for a change of legislation that would have helped Milachan avoid a huge tax bill. This resulted in an exchange of bitter accusations between the Lapid and Netanyahu camps, which could now be seen as the opening shots in an election campaign that, all things considered, might take place before too long.
Time will tell whether these disturbing affairs are going to end in charges and/or convictions. However, what is evident to anyone who cares about decency and honesty in public life is that Netanyahu is unfit to be in public life, let alone to serve as a prime minister. His first reaction to the possibility that he may be indicted suggests that he is ready to ruin the entire justice system in Israel and drive the country into further and dangerous fragmentation, for the sake of his own interests. The only decent thing left for him to do is to vacate the premiership in a quiet and orderly manner, for the sake of the country and whatever scrap of integrity he might still possess.
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.