Is This the End for Bibi?
Israeli columnist Ben Caspit has not always had good luck with timing. In 2013, he penned a book about former Prime Minister Ehud Barak — his second. The first book was published in the late 1990s, when Barak still seemed fresh and promising. Caspit worked hard on the second book so that, among other things, he could correct the adoring nature of the first book. The second one, “Stealth,” was highly critical.
“Stealth” made some headlines and met with modest success, but the timing was clearly off. In early 2013, a new government was formed, and Barak, after many years as defense minister, was no longer a part of it. Caspit’s well-aimed ammunition was spent on a political corpse. The 76-year-old Barak is still with us, of course, and still makes waves occasionally, but very few Israelis believe that his dream of a comeback — which many suspect he still harbors — is a realistic one.
Caspit may have better luck with his latest book, “Netanyahu: Biography” (published in English in July under the title “The Netanyahu Years”). It has been Israel’s No. 1 best-seller for a few weeks now, as its protagonist, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, battles for his political survival and, possibly, his freedom.
“I realized there is a potential for a perfect storm,” Caspit told me recently in Los Angeles. Originally, the Hebrew version was supposed to be published first, but American publishers decided to publish the English version last year. Caspit’s Israeli publisher had a more flexible schedule that allowed it to time publication to coincide with news developments. The strategy proved successful — “More than I could ever imagine when I started working on the book four years ago,” Caspit said.
If Netanyahu serves the remainder of this term as prime minister, the book’s back cover reminds readers, he will become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s short history.
Timing is everything. It’s true for books as it is for investigations and journalistic scoops. In the past three weeks, Israelis have had to stay alert if they wanted to keep pace with developments in the Netanyahu investigations. Every week, there is new scandal. Every week, there is new angle. A few weeks ago, the police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for allegedly taking illegal gifts from wealthy people, such as Arnon Milchan, and attempting to trade favors with the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, a popular newspaper usually hostile to the prime minister.
Netanyahu fought back. Police recommendations do not impress him, and he will wait for the decision of the attorney general. Or maybe he will wait even longer, for a final decision by the courts. Until then, Netanyahu reminds his base, he is under no legal obligation to step aside, quit or suspend himself. Suspicions and allegations aside, he is innocent until proven guilty. He also has the support of the people — the many citizens who voted him in as prime minister for a fourth term and, according to polls, likely would elect him to a fifth.
The public had barely digested the police recommendations when new allegations arose. The latest case alleges Netanyahu worked to benefit an Israeli tycoon who controls a communications empire in exchange for positive coverage on one of the tycoon’s news sites. Then, another bombshell hit the news when Netanyahu’s former close confidant, Shlomo Filber, decided to become a state witness against his former boss. Filber was Netanyahu’s right-hand man in the Ministry of Communication. If there is a black box in which the secrets of the Netanyahu-tycoon relationship are hidden, Filber is the most likely person with the key.
So, the prime minister is done, right? Some pundits were quick to eulogize him, and they have strong arguments. Still, Netanyahu survives.
A series of polls has shown that the public still supports the current coalition and has no inclination to replace it with another. Netanyahu’s coalition partners have no incentive to topple their hold on power, and for now stand behind him. And even the media got off Netanyahu’s back for a few days this past week after a report of a problematic exchange of text messages between a prosecutor and a judge involved in the tycoon case. Their texts, exchanged in advance of court hearings, were caught by a reporter who photographed one of their cellphone screens. Obviously, their foul equips the Netanyahu camp with a new set of rhetorical arrows, enabling it to assert that the justice system is guilty of bias.
For three days, Israelis had to consider the implications of this prosecutor-judge communication — the text was more an irresponsible banter than anything else. For three days, the focus was not on Netanyahu, but rather on the justice system and its faults. The prime miniter could take a breath. Next week, he will be in Washington, enjoying another respite from the pursuing investigators. The police are asking to interview Netanyahu, but he has an elusive schedule. Today is not good; tomorrow might be problematic; next week, he’s traveling; the week after, who knows?
Netanyahu is buying time. Maybe he’s hoping to get more information before being questioned; maybe he’s strategizing before making his next move. There is a positive aspect to all of these revelations: the prime minister doesn’t seem tired, he seems ready for a fight, energetic, uncompromising. But the negative aspect is obvious: Netanyahu’s many affairs will cast a shadow over all political developments in the coming months. They will be a diversion. They will make politicians edgy and the public weary. They will raise suspicions that government officials are more concerned with survival than anything else. They will frustrate Netanyahu’s rivals and supporters and hence make the public discourse even nastier than it is now.
The prime minister is done, right? Some pundits were quick to eulogize him, and they have strong arguments. Still, Netanyahu survives.
And as Israel moves forward, it can expect a constant stream of news, scandals, leaks, revelations, maneuvers and spin — accompanied by the constant underlying question: Will he survive? Will he become the longest-serving prime minister?
A week ago, Haaretz editor Aluf Benn declared “the final days of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule.” Benn is one of Israel’s wisest writers and, as usual, he made a solid argument predicting Netanyahu’s demise. Benn made a similarly solid argument in December 2010, foretelling the expiration of Netanyahu’s second government under a similar headline: “It’s over for Benjamin Netanyahu.” Indeed, new elections were called, but two years later. And now, more than seven years later, the “It’s over” prediction is still waiting to be fulfilled. Surely, it is only a matter of time. Netanyahu, like all politicians, and all humans, will not stick around forever.
The opposite argument, made by Bret Stephens at The New York Times, is also not foolproof.
“For all of his flaws, few have done it as well as Bibi, which is why he has endured, and will probably continue to do so,” Stephens wrote. His assessment of the prime minister’s achievements is fair, and his contemplation of public opinion — Israelis do not see a worthy heir to Netanyahu — is solid. But Israel is still a country of shifting political ground. The fact that Netanyahu has the support of his partners today doesn’t mean he will have it tomorrow.
Netanyahu is hardly beloved by his peers. Within his own Likud party, some of the ministers are eager to see him gone. He has dominated the party for many years, and a generation of young and promising leaders await their turn. The coalition is also edgy. The Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennet and Netanyahu have tense relations. Finance Minister Moshe Cahlon left the Likud Party because of Netanyahu. The Charedi parties are loyal to the prime minister, but they expect to be rewarded. Such rewards — the Charedis recently demanded legislation exempting Charedi youths from serving in the Israel Defense Forces — complicates relations between the Likud party and most of the country (the Charedi parties are highly unpopular with non-Charedi voters). Such rewards strengthen Netanyahu’s main political rival, Yair Lapid, whom the Charedis consider an archenemy.
To sum up, look at the fundamentals. Netanyahu’s options are few when it comes to the police and the justice system: They have witnesses ready to testify against him, recordings, documents, and the legal right, time and resources to keep investigating him. Netanyahu can slow them down, he can divert public attention, he can discredit the people investigating him, but stopping this train is beyond his power. This train is moving forward, and it is carrying a heavy load of toxic material.
But this legal train is not the only train on track. The political train is much faster and more agile. As long as the political calculations of Netanyahu’s coalition partners remain as they are today, he can survive. He can work to stabilize the coalition and wait patiently for the slow legal train — it might take a year or two before it reaches its next dangerous junction: the attorney general’s decision. Netanyahu can pre-empt a decision by calling for a new election, in the hope that reaffirmation by the public will make it more difficult for the attorney general to put him on trial. And, of course, he can try to forge a deal: trade his political future to escape a trial and possible conviction.
As disappointing as this scenario might be for pundits in need of catchy headlines, for a public in need of political stability, for coalition partners in need of political clarity, for international players in need of a reliable partner, no one knows how Netanyahu will play his cards. Like most politicians, Netanyahu is used to keeping as many options open as possible until emerging circumstances force him to act. For now, no major decision is required.
So, is the end of Netanyahu near? I know you want an answer, and I do, too. But as I write this, only one thing is clear: Netanyahu survived yet another stormy week.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.