Analysis

Netanyahu's True Nightmare Isn't Criminal Indictment but the Israeli Public's Contempt

In his sweet dream, Netanyahu continues to ward off the agents of the law, but now he’s backed by a renewed mandate from the people

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, board a plane at Ben-Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv, February 15, 2018.
Amos Ben Gershom

The saying only one small step separates the ridiculous from the sublime is attributed, erroneously perhaps, to Napoleon Bonaparte. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to the police report recommending his indictment on two counts of bribery indicates that he is fully aware of the danger. Netanyahu is trying to persuade the public of his glorious service on behalf of the nation so that his behavior, as it is portrayed in the police report, won’t spark the scorn that it deserves. His public campaign is aimed at dissuading the attorney general from accepting the police findings but also to divert the public’s attention from the nefarious behavior that they expose.

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In this regard, the most poisonous reaction to the publication of the police report came from Netanyahu’s coalition colleague, Naftali Bennett. The education minister and leader of Habayit Hayehudi party ostensibly paid allegiance to Netanyahu’s legal presumption of innocence, but he then pilloried the prime minister’s morals and ethics. “Receiving gifts on such a large scale and for such a long time is not what Israeli citizens expect,” Bennett said. “The leader of the Jewish state cannot accept such gifts from billionaires,” he added. Bennet broke through the fog of Netanyahu’s battle against the police and the stormy public debate whether he should or should not resign to remind the public just how shameful Netanyahu’s conduct, as depicted by the police, truly is.

Imagine that both Netanyahu probes, dubbed 1000 and 2000 respectively, hadn’t been investigated by the police and hadn’t become embroiled in partisan political debate — but had been exposed to the public in all their sordid details. Were it not for Netanyahu’s war against world-wide conspiracies, Israelis would have no choice but to absorb the cringe worthy picture of a self-indulgent prime minister who is too cheap to finance his own pleasures, so he demands that his rich “friends” do so. In the so-called 2000 file, Netanyahu breaks all known records for political hypocrisy and duplicity. He was willing to sell the press equivalent of his own father and mother — Sheldon Adelson and his pro-Bibi newspaper - in exchange for fawning praise, dictated from above, in the rival newspaper of his supposedly mortal enemy, Noni Mozes. In the encyclopedia of what Israelis like to call “stinking maneuvers,” the underhanded conspiracy between Netanyahu and Mozes deserves special mention.

It won’t make any difference to his ardent fans, who believe Netanyahu’s every word and automatically reject anything to the contrary, no matter what its source. In this regard, Bibi’s fans are an exact copy of U.S. President Donald Trump’s, who now seize on his every word, no matter how delusional or detached from reality, as if it was gospel truth. But ardent fans aren’t enough to sustain Netanyahu’s coalition and certainly aren’t enough to buttress Netanyahu’s dream of winning another election, if the need arises. He’ s got to manufacture industrial quantities of noise, smoke and mirrors and to spark barely-repressed feelings of hate and resentment against his imaginary persecutors so that people might forget to scrutinize his behavior, as portrayed in the police evidence, or to reach the conclusion that it lies somewhere on the scale between abhorrent and repulsive.

Netanyahu is no stranger to such derision. It broke out relatively quickly during his first term in office, which was plagued by constant controversy and scandal, from his efforts to appoint an attorney general who would help Shas’ Arye Deri escape conviction, from which he was exonerated, to Tanya Shaw, the first of a long line of domestic employees who testified to the loony bin that doubles as the prime minister’s home. When the sheer number of scandals turned overwhelming, and senior Likud figures started to abandon Netanyahu en masse, he would come to the Knesset to respond to motions of no confidence and his words would be greeted by loud guffaws and laughter from the plenum, both left and right. Netanyahu’s emphatic loss to Ehud Barak in the May 1999 elections was spawned on the same day he turned into a joke.

The Israeli police nudged Netanyahu just a little bit closer to the abyss this week. His worst-case scenario — indictment, resignation, conviction and, god forbid, incarceration — moved a notch from outlandish nightmare to reasonable possibility. Netanyahu has focused so far on undermining his police investigators but you can rest assured that once he smells weakness or discovers a mistake, he will pounce on the state attorneys with no less ferocity. Netanyahu knows that his coalition is unlikely to survive a decision to charge him with bribery and breach of trust, as the police recommends. The moment he feels that his guerrilla campaign against the rule of law has failed and senses that an indictment is forthcoming, Netanyahu will face a fateful choice between resigning and devoting his efforts to exonerating himself on deploying his ultimate weapon: Calling snap elections, before his potential Likud rivals manage to recover from the shock. In his sweet dream, Netanyahu continues to ward off the agents of the law, but now he’s backed by a renewed mandate from the people.

In order to preserve the chances that such a grandiose strategy could succeed, Netanyahu needs to position himself as an uber-patriot fighting off the media/police/judges/elites axis of evil. This was the main objective of his nationally televised reaction to the police report this week with its over-the-top self-portrayal as the embodiment of the state. Netanyahu can continue to skirmish against the police and he could still mount an all-out offensive against the attorney general, but only on condition that public opinion, or at least a significant part of it, continues to give him the benefit of the doubt. Netanyahu knows that his ability to ply his fans with explanations for his behavior that they can accept as reasonable is only one small step away from his image becoming entrenched as a two-bit con man who traded state assets in exchange for empty flattery and a handful of cigars. Netanyahu can handle all the hate that is directed against him, but contempt could finish him.