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Netanyahu's Long Goodbye

The next few months will be the damaging twilight of Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership. If only he was capable of cutting it short

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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He may refuse to admit it to himself, but Netanyahu has embarked on his long goodbye.
He may refuse to admit it to himself, but Netanyahu has embarked on his long goodbye.Credit: meged gozani
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

All political lives end in failure, said British politician Enoch Powell. And that couldn’t have been truer of Israeli prime ministers, none of whom left office on their own terms.

Of the 11 men and one woman to have held the post, two were forced out by their party colleagues (David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett); two resigned after disastrous wars (Golda Meir, Menachem Begin); two resigned due to corruption charges (Yitzhak Rabin in his first term, Ehud Olmert); three lost elections (Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Shamir, Ehud Barak); Levi Eshkol died of natural causes while in office; Ariel Sharon was incapacitated by a coma; and Rabin was murdered during his second term.

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And then there’s Netanyahu, who left after losing the 1999 election but who, since returning to power in 2009, has insisted that only he will determine the timing and manner of his departure.

“I intend to write my memoirs many years from now,” he said only three months ago. And despite all that has happened in the last eight days – the police recommendations to indict him for fraud, the Bezeq case arrests, the allegations of an alleged attempt to appoint a convenient attorney general, and Shlomo Filber becoming a state witness in the Bezeq case – he still believes that to be so.

Just like in 1997 and 2000, when then-Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein saved him twice from an indictment, making do with a public report instead, Netanyahu is convinced that current AG Avichai Mendelblit will not endorse the police recommendations to indict a serving prime minister.

He is deluding himself. Mendelblit doesn’t want to be the civil servant who brings down an elected leader, but he is painstaking, ponderous, methodical and fundamentally honest – and ultimately will not be able to ignore the mountain of evidence amassed by the police.

He will take his time, but in the end his decision will not be that different to the police recommendations. And once he issues it, wavering governing coalition partners Naftali Bennett and Moshe Kahlon will no longer be able to prevaricate. They will make it clear to their Likud partner – as Labor Party leader Barak did to Olmert’s Kadima party in 2008 – that there is no government with this prime minister.

It will take Mendelblit three or four months, perhaps longer. But unless another bombshell emerges from the ongoing investigations, that is the time frame. He may refuse to admit it to himself, but Netanyahu has embarked on his long goodbye. It will be a protracted, slow death by a thousand cuts, which Netanyahu would do well to prevent by resigning. But he is incapable.

It means that his Washington visit next month – to meet U.S. President Donald Trump and speak at the annual AIPAC conference – will be overshadowed by the pall of it being his final trip as prime minister, of so many, to the United States. And while his hosts may pretend nothing has changed, there will be those who choose to stay away rather than be seen in his company.

Who knows, it could be his last trip to his second homeland for many years to come. Once indicted, he may be forced to surrender his passport, and then he won’t be flying anywhere for a long time.

Also, it will have a chilling effect on his relations with other world leaders. Russian President Vladimir Putin may not be so quick to take his calls – not that Putin has anything against corrupt prime ministers, of course, but he knows what happened to the last Israeli prime minister he worked with (Olmert), and his respect for the all-powerful Bibi is already ebbing.

The pall will be cast over Israel’s 70th anniversary in two months’ time as well. No one will be feeling very festive with a suspect prime minister as master of ceremonies.

Ministers will be able to pursue pretty much whatever policies they choose. A lame duck premier who cannot challenge them for fear of losing their support will have little say. And it could impact on other decisions Netanyahu would like to make. The various government agencies that have to carry out his controversial plan to deport tens of thousands of African asylum seekers to Rwanda could prove less willing.

Netanyahu is expected in the coming days to announce his preferred candidate for the Jewish Agency chairmanship. If they have any backbone, the leaders of the main federations of North American Jews (which fund the agency) should refuse to approve the choice of a prime minister who is about to leave office in shame, and who has never been attentive to their concerns anyway.

There have been dark mutterings warning that Netanyahu may try to launch a war, in a bid to deflect justice off its course. This is a ridiculous fear. Netanyahu is too risk-averse to do so, even at this point. Besides, the prime minister is not the commander-in-chief; only the cabinet can decide on major military operations – and they will not give Netanyahu carte blanche at this point. But his sinking position will have a strategic impact on any attempt to warn Iran and its supporters against further encroachment on Israel’s border with Syria.

Netanyahu’s long goodbye will be bad for Israel in many ways. If only he was capable of cutting it short.

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