As Investigations Intensify, Israel Imagines Life After Netanyahu

As an ex-aide turns state’s evidence, Israelis across the spectrum are trying on the idea of the curtain coming down on Netanyahu’s career

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A portrait of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu burned by Iranian demonstrators lies on the ground in Tehran, Iran, June 23, 2017.
Experts say that Friday’s signing of a state’s witness agreement by Ari Harow could be a game changer for Netanyahu.Credit: Vahid Salemi/AP
Isabel Kershner, The New York Times

A black curtain went up a few months ago near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence on Jerusalem’s leafy Balfour Street. It screened pesky protesters from Netanyahu’s view — and prevented the public from seeing lawyers and detectives come and go as criminal investigations of the prime minister intensified.

Now, with one of Netanyahu’s closest former aides having turned state’s witness in two cases involving suspicions of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Israelis across the political spectrum are trying on the idea of the curtain coming down on Netanyahu’s durable political career.

For the past eight years, Netanyahu has dominated the Israeli political scene and become nearly synonymous with the state on the world stage. Long called “the magician” for his survival skills, he has quashed rivals from right and left despite never enjoying particular popularity in the street.

Yet Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister since Israel’s first, David Ben-Gurion, suddenly appears not so invincible after all.

“All the alliances, discussions and thinking about the day after have taken on much more significance,” said Yoaz Hendel, the chairman of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, a right-leaning research group, and a former spokesman for Netanyahu. “For the first time, people are thinking that Netanyahu won’t be the prime minister next time around, whether elections take place in a few months’ time or a year and a half.”

Netanyahu has fought off swirling scandals for much of his public life, but experts say that Friday’s signing of a state’s witness agreement by Ari Harow, who served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff and directed his 2015 re-election campaign, could be a game changer.

Harow was offered a light sentence in an unrelated matter in return for information about Netanyahu in what the police have called Case 1000 and Case 2000.

In Case 1000, investigators are looking at whether Netanyahu offered favors in return for gifts of expensive cigars, pink Champagne and other goods from wealthy friends, including Arnon Milchan, the Israeli Hollywood producer.

Case 2000 involves backroom dealings with a local newspaper magnate. Netanyahu was recorded negotiating with the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth for favorable coverage in exchange for curtailing the circulation of a free competitor, Israel Hayom.

The police came across recordings of Netanyahu’s talks with the newspaper while searching Harow’s belongings, the Israeli news media has reported.

Hendel, who worked in the prime minister’s office during the first of Harow’s two stints there, said Harow worked in the “very broad gray area” between Netanyahu’s personal, familial and national obligations.

He added, “Someone like Ari would see it all.”

Netanyahu has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, and on Tuesday he made a statement about terrorism after a hospital visit to the victim of a recent attack, with no mention of the criminal investigations. He and his office have repeatedly lashed out at the news media and his critics, asserting that the focus on the investigations is meant to topple him under the weight of baseless accusations, rather than at the ballot box.

There is, as yet, no clear contender to replace Netanyahu, who is serving his third consecutive term and fourth overall. An Israel without Netanyahu at the helm would, in any case, be an unfamiliar place for its inhabitants, the Middle East and the world.

Netanyahu has had abrasive relationships with some international leaders, including President Barack Obama, particularly over his championing of settlement expansion and his efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear program. President Donald Trump’s victory came as a great relief to Netanyahu and his coalition — the most right wing in Israel’s history — alleviating the pressure from Washington.

In May, Trump paid a bonding visit to Israel. But Netanyahu has not been given totally free rein on settlement building, and Trump’s election promise of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv remains unfulfilled.

Netanyahu has also built strong alliances with other leaders, including President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, and has expanded Israel’s global reach based on its prowess in intelligence, counterterrorism and technology.

The Israeli leader has also become a fixture at the annual meetings of the United Nations General Assembly, showcasing a combative, theatrical style of diplomacy. A peak — or nadir, depending on the perspective — of his leadership was his March 2015 speech against the Iran nuclear deal in front of a joint meeting of Congress.

His tenure has been one of impasse in the Palestinian peace process. But inside Israel, he is credited with having maintained stability as Arab neighbors descended into chaos. A departure would leave Israel, its allies and its enemies in uncharted terrain.

It could take many months for Harow’s information to be substantiated. Any police recommendation for an indictment would have to be approved by the state prosecutor and attorney general; there is no precedent in Israel for a sitting prime minister to be charged.

But one or more of Netanyahu’s coalition partners may bolt before that to protect their own reputations. There are already some signs of unease from within his own Likud Party.

On Friday, when Harow signed his deal, the anchor of Israeli public radio’s noon news program said that the only one of Likud’s 30 Parliament members willing to discuss the case was David Amsalem, a novice elected in 2015.

Since then, the coalition whip has threatened the others that they would pay a price in party primaries if they kept silent. One by one, Likud ministers have expressed support, many in Facebook posts. A political cartoon published Tuesday showed the whip holding a gun to the heads of several ministers while ordering, “Again — with feeling!”

A Likud rally in support of Netanyahu is scheduled for Wednesday evening.

Late Monday, Israeli news outlets reported that the attorney general would soon announce charges against Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, on accusations that public funds were misused in the family residences. And, responding to a journalist’s freedom of information request, Israel’s Supreme Court has given Netanyahu two weeks to disclose the call logs of his conversations with executives of Israel Hayom, a newspaper widely considered to have been established to support him.

Yehuda Ben Meir, an expert in national security and public opinion at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said that recent political polls showed “a degree of erosion in the support” for Netanyahu, but that “there are no indicators at this moment that his position has been dealt a fatal blow.”

Netanyahu’s durability can be attributed at least in part to the fractured field of potential rivals.

Naftali Bennett, leader of the far right Jewish Home party, and Avigdor Lieberman, of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, would like to contend for the premiership but have relatively small parties that make it difficult.

The Likud has several people jostling for the top spot, including Yisrael Katz, the minister of transportation and intelligence affairs; Gilad Erdan, the minister of public security; and Gideon Sa’ar, a former education minister who recently returned to public life.

Support for Yair Lapid, a former finance minister, and his centrist Yesh Atid party has grown over the past year. Avi Gabbay has injected new spirit into the Labor Party after being elected its chairman last month, replacing Isaac Herzog.

“There are no two ways about it,” Gabbay wrote in a recent Facebook post. “There is only being for or against the corruption and the rot.”

Dahlia Scheindlin, a political analyst, said all the chatter was not so different from what she heard before the election two years ago. “Then, too, people were complaining that Bibi had been in for too long, that it was time for change,” she said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “But in the same breath they would say, ‘But there’s nobody else.’ It’s the same thing now.”

Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political communications at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said, however, “At some point, people in his party are going to say enough is enough.”

The notion that there is nobody to replace Netanyahu holds “until it happens,” Wolfsfeld said. “They said nobody could replace Ben-Gurion.”

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