Analysis

The Countdown to Netanyahu’s Departure Begins

He seems willing to lie, coerce others to lie and undermine the foundations of democracy, but the suspicions will break him

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement in Jerusalem, in this picture grab taken February 13, 2018.
\ POOL/ REUTERS

With the police’s recommendations to indict Benjamin Netanyahu for bribery, the prime minister begins the countdown to the end of his political life. Netanyahu made clear he won’t step down without a fight and spoke aggressively against his investigators, promising that the recommendations will end in nothing and he will once again be elected Israel’s prime minister.

To really understand Israeli politics and the Netanyahu cases - subscribe to Haaretz

But the important part of his speech was what he failed to mention: Netanyahu didn’t try to contradict the hard facts published by the police.

He didn’t deny demanding or receiving lavish gifts, a phenomenon that only worsened after he returned to power. He didn’t deny advancing legislation or business ventures, or lobbying the United States for the benefit of the man pampering him, Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. He didn’t deny the quid pro quo he tried to negotiate with the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, Arnon Mozes, for favorable coverage if he reined in the daily’s competitor, the free Israel Hayom.

Bibi bombshell explained: Your guide to the Netanyahu cases ■ Netanyahu's all-out war of self preservation heralds bedlam and mayhem for Israel | Analysis ■ Netanyahu's media obsession has brought about his downfall | Analysis ■ The Israeli police recommended indicting Netanyahu, so what happens now?

If so, the argument isn’t about facts but about how to interpret them. According to the version supplied by Netanyahu and his supporters, the police chief and all the top police investigators are scheming to topple his premiership, much like their predecessors who tried and failed for the past 20 years.

According to this narrative, Netanyahu has uncovered a coup by the police, an attempt to replace the government through a criminal investigation and misleading recommendations. He didn’t explain to the public the motivations of the alleged conspirators. Israel Hayom’s pundits, who usually parrot Netanyahu’s line, attribute this alleged coup to the police’s desire for positive coverage in the media.

It’s amazing. Netanyahu, who is embroiled in the Mozes affair and probably in the separate Bezeq affair just to soften criticism of him in Yedioth and get pictures of his wife on the Walla news site, sees in his investigators the exact same motives that have put him on the brink of a corruption indictment – and maybe more investigations in the future. It seems he    assume   s that every senior public figure is busy with one thing – winning favorable coverage in the media. It seems he’s willing to lie, coerce others to lie and undermine the foundations of democracy. As they say, it takes one to know one.

Netanyahu says his entire public life, from the day he joined the army to his dozen years as prime minister, has been devoted only to the good of the country, to its security and prosperity. But when he moves from the self-congratulations to the details, the opposite becomes clear: Netanyahu believes that political power is meant to serve those who wield it, not the public.

He claims he got the last Knesset dissolved because of the so-called Israel Hayom law; that is, to save his mouthpiece. And he wanted to close down Channel 10 for undisclosed reasons, but everyone knew that the channel excelled at unflattering reporting on him, his wife and his patrons. It’s hard to believe, but that’s his line of defense: I helped the newspaper that backed me and almost shut down the channel that criticized me. I used the power to benefit my supporters and silence my opponents.

Netanyahu has no doubt or remorse about demanding the valuable “gifts” from Milchan (who split the bill with fellow billionaire James Packer when the sums grew). In his eyes, that’s perfectly fine conduct for a public servant, who then asks ministers and senior officials to advance matters of cigars, jewel, clothes and champagne.

This position corrupts the entire public service. If a prime minister can behave this way, why can’t a mayor, a cop, a school principal, meter maids and department heads at hospitals? What, they don’t have friends with loose change in their pocket who are willing to accommodate any request and sometimes ask for a favor in return? What’s the big deal?

Netanyahu will try to buy time hoping Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit will scrape away the hard recommendations and leave him in his post. He will portray Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid, who testified against him in the Milchan case, as someone with a clear political interest to defame him. And he will continue to criticize his investigators.

But at the end of the day, Netanyahu’s fate will be decided by his political partners, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Education Minister Naftali Bennett. In the coming days, they will have to explain to the public why they still support a corrupt leader who preaches corruption in prime time, rather than dismantle the governing coalition and let Netanyahu fight for his innocence without the burden of leading the country.

Netanyahu is trying to deter them using the right-wing base, hoping that Bennett and Kahlon will fear losing voters angry about the toppling of a right-wing government. But even if Netanyahu buys a little more time as prime minister, the weight of the suspicions will break him.