What Happens if Netanyahu Is Indicted for Receiving Illegal Funds?

As he shuttled between east African countries, Netanyahu shrugs off the growing and disturbing stream of reports about a new financial scandal Were the African ministers who hosted Minister Miri Regev this week aware of her racist remarks?

An illustration showing Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu riding an elephant dressed as Tarzan and Jane. Netanyahu says "Me Tarzan."
Eran Wolkowski

The demons continue to pursue Benjamin Netanyahu even in his junkets abroad. It sometimes seems that the number of demons is equal to the number of foreign trips he takes, which are many and frequent. A month ago, the prime minister visited Moscow to mark the 25th anniversary of the renewal of diplomatic relations between Russia and Israel. That trip, which was deemed historic in retrospect, was tainted and overshadowed by reports from Israel and France about the financial ties between Netanyahu and his dubious friend, the French billionaire Arnaud Mimran.

This week, as he shuttled between east African countries, Netanyahu shrugged off the growing and disturbing stream of reports about a new financial scandal by making the self-victimizing comment that every time he embarks on a historic trip abroad, some new investigation is concocted back home to spoil the experience for him. He is making history, while the petty-minded media, incapable or unwilling to rise to the grandeur of the occasion, wallows in its own filth.

Again Netanyahu finds himself in a situation he loathes – battered from both sides on a ship that he is not navigating. His tendency, aggrandized with the passing years, to see himself as the greatest leader of Israel of all time and to resent anyone who insists on treating him as a mere mortal who is not above criticism, often catapults him into the realm of satire. “All of Africa is thrilled at this visit,” he declared on his Facebook page before landing in Entebbe, Uganda, this week, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Israeli army rescue operation there. That statement contained more than a hint of the arrogance of the white man (the “gentle European,” in a remark attributed to his wife) who descends from the sky to honor the Dark Continent with his presence.

Information about the new investigation – into whether the premier received funds illegally from foreign donors – which was first revealed in Haaretz and Channel 2 News a month ago, is trickling slowly down not only to the media but also to well-connected local politicians, who know how to connect the dots. The police have not yet issued a gag order about the inquest, as is routine practice. There is no way of knowing whether this is a deliberate ploy by the investigators in order to put pressure on someone, or just a typical Israeli snafu. Or whether the initial examination is assuming the dimensions of a concrete criminal-legal drama involving Netanyahu. Or whether the case will soon be closed.

In the meantime, in the absence of more substantial information, the speculation, scenarios and guesswork are rife in every corner of the political arena, and nowhere more so than in Likud. Raviv Drucker, writing in this paper on Monday, set forth a scenario of voluntary incapacity. That is, if Netanyahu is indicted, he will place the premiership in the hands of a Likud loyalist – Yuval Steinitz is the first name that comes to mind – with the intention of reclaiming the title if and when he is acquitted or otherwise exonerated.

Of all the possibilities – and they are few – this scenario is the least logical, for several reasons.

1. The road to an indictment is very long and tortuous. In the case of Ehud Olmert, it took two years. In other words, the present Knesset will be about to end its term, or may have already ended it, by the time a possible indictment is handed down. (Tzipi Livni was Olmert’s foreign minister and the acting prime minister, by law; when he resigned, she received a coalition of 70 MKs from him, and a mandate from the president to form an alternative government as part of the same Knesset, but election winds propelled her to go to the people.)

2. Before Netanyahu crowns anyone from his party as temporary heir apparent, he will prefer to dissolve the government and call an early election. The reason is simple: An election delays an investigation of elected officials or leaders of political parties. Certainly one of a prime minister. He will conduct his fifth election campaign yet again as the victim who’s hunted and hounded by the elites. And this time that includes those in the judicial realm as well as in the media. Incipient signs of that strategy were visible this week when Netanyahu accused unspecified persons (in the police? the state prosecution? the media? all of the above?) of fabricating an investigation against him. He also fired off a Facebook post, ostensibly from “Likud,” against Noni Mozes, the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth and Ynet group, for publishing what was a legitimate report about the estimated cost of his journey to Africa this week. “Noni Mozes has returned to his old ways,” the post said. So the premier decided to reprise a tactic that served him well in the 2015 campaign: a direct appeal to his voters through the social network while lambasting the hostile media.

3. An indictment will definitely lead to an election, either as a preventive move by the accused, if he feels the noose tightening, or as an inevitable response by the other political players on the field. No one will be anointed the successor here, certainly not by Netanyahu, who is not known for philanthropic gestures. Does anyone actually believe that the group of pretenders to the throne – among them Gilad Erdan, Yisrael Katz, Yariv Levin and Zeev Elkin, maybe even Miri Regev and Tzachi Hanegbi – will sit idly by and let Steinitz get the part, accumulate experience and create a dream stage for himself on which he plays the lead in a one-man show and for a long run? The precedent of the incapacitated Ariel Sharon and the besieged Ehud Olmert are still fresh in their memory.

The self-styled high-flyers in Likud aren’t the only ones who will block a fantastical scenario of this kind. For the coalition to stay in power, the agreement of all its members will be needed. Both Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) and Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) have, as we know, their own dreams and ambitions. They do not include helping Yuval Steinitz land in the prime minister’s chair and getting a big head start on them. But they do include seeing the eternal Netanyahu hightail it to the plains of Caesarea.

Bennett is eager to take his revenge for the way Netanyahu robbed him of Knesset seats at the end of the last election campaign, and for making Lieberman defense minister. The latter underwent successful “fuse-lengthening surgery,” as he put it, but his personality, intelligence and political instincts were not affected.

Sense and sensibility

Netanyahu’s visit to Africa also had an economic dimension. A bevy of businessmen were invited by the Prime Minister’s Bureau to make the trip and explore new markets. Historic visits necessitate historic entourages, but for some reason not one relevant minister was invited: The ministers of agriculture, tourism, energy and science all stayed home.

One cabinet member who was honored with an invitation is Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev. In the past year she has succeeded in gaining the affection of the Netanyahus. Hence her prize. Four years ago, Regev stood on a stage in Tel Aviv’s low-income Hatikva neighborhood, during a tempestuous demonstration against African “infiltrators” and migrant laborers, whom she labeled “a cancer in our body.” She said later that she hadn’t meant actual human beings, but the “phenomenon” – as though that made what she said forgivable or tolerable or less racist. What’s certain is that it did her no harm in Likud’s primary.

It would be interesting to know whether any of the African culture and/or sports ministers who hosted Regev is aware of her record. Given the level of prior research that was apparent in the speech of the president of Uganda in the ceremony marking 40 years since the Entebbe operation, it’s possible that both she and they were spared that embarrassment.

But let’s try to be positive for a moment. Maybe the direct encounter Regev experienced with poverty and the difficult conditions in the African countries will soften her a little and help her understand the circumstances and motivations that impel people to leave family and homeland, and wander to other lands in a desperate search for a living. If so, that too is all for the good.