Netanyahu, a dead man walking (aren’t we all?)
When there is no news, there is speculation. And in recent days there has been very little news about the criminal investigations into allegations against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Investigations are slow and, besides, there is a gag order that’s preventing the news media from reporting about any developments. So there is a vacuum, and the vacuum is filled by speculation, and by ever-chatting politicians and pundits. Some of them try to convince us that the prime minister is a dead man walking. Some are trying to convince us that “there will be nothing, because there is nothing,” which is Netanyahu’s usual response to questions about the investigations.
He is not dead yet. But the potential of a sudden political death no longer can be denied. Netanyahu suffered a blow last week when his close aid, Ari Harow, signed a state-witness agreement. One assumes that such an agreement only is signed with a witness who has something incriminating to say. One assumes that Harow was in a position that provided him unique access to Netanyahu. What did he tell the investigators? We don’t know. What does he tell his acquaintances? “I did not rat out Netanyahu” is what he says.
Is that possible? Is it possible that the police signed an agreement with a state witness when the witness believes that he said nothing incriminating about his former boss? In fact, it is. It’s possible if what Harow has to tell is open to interpretation. Harow told the investigators stories that he considers legal and they might consider illegal. Harow told them stories that he believes are not incriminating enough to put Netanyahu on trial and they might believe are incriminating indeed and strong enough to indict Netanyahu.
He is not dead yet. But the potential of a sudden political death no longer can be denied.
Harow might be naïve. He might not understand the severity of his actions. The investigators might be overeager. They might not see that in their zeal to search for an elusive truth, they criminalize trivial actions. As I remarked four years ago, prosecutors have sniffed around every prime minister for nearly two decades, with mixed results. Netanyahu, first term: investigated, not charged. Ehud Barak: investigated, not charged. Ariel Sharon: investigated, not charged. Ehud Olmert: investigated, charged, found guilty (mostly for his actions as the mayor of Jerusalem). Netanyahu, second term: under investigation again.
Olmert was forced out as prime minister because of the investigation and indictment. Netanyahu has vowed not to repeat Olmert’s actions, that he will not leave his position even if an indictment is put before the court. There is no clear indication in the law that a prime minister must resign if he is indicted.
For now, his coalition partners support his position. But political grounds can shift. Today’s support is essential but hardly guarantees tomorrow’s support. The legal situation might be navigable. But Olmert was pushed out by the political system: The Labor party’s Barak forced the Kadima party to get rid of Olmert or else (the coalition would crumble). And, of course, Barak said at the time that his motivation was pure and that his ambition was for Israel not to be corrupt.
Still, more cynical observers and members of the political cast believed at the time, and still believe, that Barak wanted Olmert ousted because of personal ambitions and his belief that a vacuum created an opportunity for him to become more powerful.
So, Netanyahu’s political fate is hanging in the air and a decision to cut short his time in office could only begin with the political system. And that comes with a lot of ifs: if the prime minister is indicted, if the public (not just his rivals but also voters of coalition parties) wants him out, if his fellow politicians master the courage to stand up to him, if coalition partners believe they can benefit from a new election or get more from another prime minister.
Last week, it appeared that some of Netanyahu’s colleagues were beginning to entertain such thoughts. This week, the tide turned, and Netanyahu proved, once again, that he is quite good at disciplining his party members. Likud ministers who were somewhat reluctant to defend him are back on the airwaves, declaring his innocence. They do it not because they like Netanyahu, not because they want him to stay as their leader, not because they are truly convinced that he is innocent; they do it because that’s the smart thing for them to do politically. It is the smart thing to do as long as Likud voters want Netanyahu to stay.
There are four scenarios under which Netanyahu could be forced out. One: If the politicians decide it is time. Two: If Netanyahu believes he needs to step aside and take care of his legal troubles. Three: If he is indicted and found guilty. Four: If the court interprets the law in a way that forces out the prime minister as soon as he is indicted.
What is the timetable for these scenarios to materialize? With politicians, one never knows, but for now, there is not one important member of the ruling coalition who wants Netanyahu to step aside. There also is no sign that Netanyahu is considering leaving. In fact, he has vowed time and again to fight and remain in office. Indictments take time. A lot of time. In any of these scenarios, Netanyahu is not leaving anytime soon.
Of course, there still is the option of a court decision that forces him out. This will not be an easy decision, because unlike throwing out a minister in Israel — a decision that is problematic personally for the minister but hardly impacts the public — throwing out a prime minister would be perceived as a political revolution by the court.
The bottom line is simple: Either we see a change of political hearts or we are destined to slog through a very long process. That Netanyahu might have to leave at some point is true. But that was true even before the investigations began (it is true with every prime minister). That the end is much closer today than it was before also is true.
But that was true even before the investigations began — it is true for all of us with every passing day.