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Facing Charges, Netanyahu Looks to World Stage for Help

Netanyahu has one great advantage over his rivals, and he's using it to maintain his image ■ The election campaign will heat up, with potentially violent consequences

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow, February 27, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow, February 27, 2019.Credit: Alexei Druzhinin,AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The attorney general’s decision to indict the prime minister creates an unprecedented situation. Benjamin Netanyahu is not the first prime minister to be saddled with such a decision, but he’s the first to insist on staying at his post during an election, a subsequent hearing and, as far as he’s concerned, during the entire trial that will follow. By comparison, Ehud Olmert, who preceded Netanyahu in his entanglement with the law, announced his retirement even before the attorney general’s decision and certainly before his hearing.

Eight months passed between Olmert’s announcement in 2009 and the subsequent election, a period in which he conducted Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Netanyahu is preparing for more than that. At least according to his official statements, he believes he can manage the affairs of Israel, an almost impossible country even under normal circumstances, even when called upon to appear in the Jerusalem District Court three or four times a week.

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Even now, long before that happens, Netanyahu will have to divide his time between his campaign, his altercations with the attorney general and the state prosecution and the fulfilment of his role as prime minister and defense minister. The last two days were a prelude to the nature of things to come. Netanyahu set out for an important meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but shortened his visit to return to Israel ahead of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s announcement. Many of the questions he fielded from journalists accompanying him related to the repulsive video clip Likud put out, showing a military cemetery as a backdrop, and his reaction to the then-expected decision by the attorney general. (Netanyahu had a prepared response, but chose to ignore these questions while in Moscow.)

Alongside ongoing diplomatic needs, it’s obvious that Netanyahu’s frequent trips abroad are connected to maintaining his public image ahead of the election. This is a great advantage he has over his rivals, who lack this kind of experience. Netanyahu is viewed as a person with global connections, with the leaders of the great powers and other nations, including Arab states, attendant on his views. On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump granted him an electoral bonus by praising Netanyahu’s performance, in response to a question by an Israeli correspondent at the end of Trump’s meeting with North Korea’s leader in Vietnam.

It’s doubtful whether Trump has learned how to pronounce the names of Benny Gantz or Avi Gabbay, but he’ll be happy to meet Netanyahu at the end of the month, when he comes to the annual AIPAC meeting in Washington. These pictures will open newscasts and help the Likud campaign, allowing Netanyahu to minimize the damage caused by Mendelblit’s decision to indict him.

Following the meeting in Moscow, “diplomatic sources” – are there any left near the prime minister, who gradually loses most advisers? – boasted of the achievements of that summit. The downing of the Ilyushin jet, they said, was behind us; Russia and Israel decided to discuss ways of reconstructing Syria; the Russians pledged to help get rid of all foreign forces in Syria (namely, Iranians too) in the future.

The credibility of these claims, as well as the significance of understandings that were reached, is unclear. The Ilyushin was shot down (by Syrian aerial defense systems) last September; two months later there were reports of Israeli air strikes again. The new rules of the game were set then. The change is that air strikes now focus on central and southern Syria, far from areas Russian forces are deployed in. It’s hard to understand what Israel has to do with reconstructing Syria, and the removal of foreign forces still seems like a distant vision.

The most critical issue for Israel was not mentioned publicly. After the Ilyushin incident, Russia supplied Syria with more advanced S-300 aerial defense systems. It’s important for Netanyahu that Putin delay making these systems operational, and keeping them under Russian supervision. Giving Syria control over these systems will hasten their use and require Israel’s air force to destroy them so they don’t endanger its planes. This could escalate the confrontation with Syrian and Iranian forces on our northern front. The media was not told what, if any, was agreed on between Putin and Netanyahu in this matter.

As the publication of the attorney general’s decision weakens Likud’s standing in the polls, one can expect an even more aggressive campaign, aimed at saving Netanyahu from electoral defeat and from an indictment (assuming he manages to pass, as he plans to, the “French law,” which prevents the indictment of a sitting prime minister). The cemetery-based video clip, which Netanyahu rushed to remove from his Facebook page following public criticism, is only the opening shot. The tougher the pressure gets, the more we’ll hear messages blending blood, bereavement and terror.

Up to now, election considerations have not seemed to affect defense policy, other than a cabinet decision to curtail tax reimbursements to the Palestinian Authority as retribution for its assistance to security prisoners. However, it’s obvious that the heads of the security branches will now have to demonstrate great sensitivity to the ethical aspects of their roles, while deflecting inappropriate pressure. A heating up of the election campaign could lead to an increase of other unwanted effects, such as dissemination of false news, in the service of election advertising. Rising tensions could lead to violence. The Shin Bet security service should be highly alert to risks facing candidates and state prosecutors.

Most of the defense-related activity will focus in the short term on the Palestinian front, due to slashing of funds to the Palestinian Authority, the clash over the opening of a new mosque on Temple Mount, and the ongoing tension on the Gaza border. Politicians are pessimistic, believing a new round of clashes with Hamas may erupt before the election.

Efforts to avoid this are noticeable. Egypt has released four Hamas naval commandos, arrested in 2015, from prison. This was seen as a gesture intended to calm the situation in Gaza. Israel has also released a member of the Palestinian parliament, who had been under administrative detention for two years. There are also rumors regarding more than 50 Palestinian prisoners who were released in the Gilad Shalit exchange but later re-arrested. This may indicate a re-examination of the issue of prisoners and missing soldiers, also in an attempt to calm the situation.

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