Analysis

The Tragedy of Suspect Benjamin Netanyahu

The week of Netanyahu’s greatest achievement is also the week in which he’ll face the most serious questioning yet ■ His popularity rests on his significant achievements, and as long as that’s the case, many will keep supporting him – even if they believe he’s guilty

Netanyahu speaks during an event organised by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations in Jerusalem, February 21, 2018.
RONEN ZVULUN/רויטרס

What a tragedy: During the week in which Benjamin Netanyahu enjoyed his greatest achievement as prime minister – the announcement of the transfer of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem this May – he is expected to undergo his harshest questioning yet as a criminal suspect.

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The brilliant diplomat, during whose term the 70-year boycott of the recognition of Israel’s capital was broken without any payment in return, will meet with Israel Police’s financial crimes investigators, in an attempt to extricate himself from bribery suspicions in the Bezeq affair (what the police call Case 4000) and the niggling questions in the submarines affair (Case 3000).

It’s hard not to revisit the comparison (which has already become a cliché) between Netanyahu and Richard Nixon, who ran into trouble in the Watergate affair just months after he returned from his trip to China – the greatest achievement of American diplomacy in decades, and which ultimately led to the United States winning the Cold War.

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It will be fascinating to read the biographies that will be written, and watch the series to be produced in another decade or two, when more and more details have emerged about what happened in the past few years in Netanyahu’s court.

His confidants are being arrested, state’s witness deals are being signed, and yet it is still hard to believe: Is it possible that the prime minister, whose intellectual and analytic abilities are beyond dispute, really risked his career – and maybe even his freedom and financial future – for only a few pretty pictures of his wife Sara on the homepage of the Walla website? For adoring headlines in the gossip columns? To soften the criticism of the Yedioth Ahronoth group about him? To masquerade as a millionaire who smokes expensive cigars and eats takeaway food from gourmet restaurants whenever he feels like it? Will he blame it on Sara and claim that all he wanted was to satisfy her whims?

According to the most recent polls, the Israeli public thinks Netanyahu is corrupt but is afraid of losing him. For nine years, the public has not considered anyone except Netanyahu as a proper leader. The investigations have not changed anything, and have not put any serious contender on the field to succeed him. The reason is not just the tribal unity of members of his Likud party against the “left and elites” that control the legal system and defense establishment (which is the common belief). Netanyahu’s popularity rests primarily on his achievements – and we must not take them lightly.

His most important achievement is his success in insulating most Israelis – who live the “Israeli” side of the Green Line – from the menace of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The security threat, which throughout most of Israel’s existence was a daily burden that overshadowed everything, was pushed to the margins of the public discourse. Palestinian terrorism, to the extent that it exists at all, is focused on the West Bank and East Jerusalem – in other words, in places where most Israelis never go.

This is not just leftism: Many people don’t want to retreat a single millimeter from the territories or move even a single family of settlers from their homes, but they don’t know where Halamish or Har Bracha are – and it doesn’t interest them, either. The terrorist attacks there don’t endanger them.

During Netanyahu’s time, the smallest number of funerals, relatively, has been recorded on the Israeli side of the conflict. He proved that it is possible to conduct an “economic peace” and enjoy international support even without giving up the territories, as opposed to the axiom accepted here for many decades.

He made some serious mistakes, first and foremost being dragged into the Gaza war in the summer of 2014 (Operation Protective Edge), and the delay in recognizing the warning signs concerning restrictions on the Israel Defense Forces’ freedom of action in Syria – which Israel paid for with the shooting down of its F-16 two weeks ago.

Not everything is his doing, of course: Netanyahu’s policies benefited from the Arab Spring that shattered neighboring countries; the collapse of the Palestinian national movement; and the results of the discovery of oil in the United States, which weakened U.S. involvement in the region and its motivation – if it ever really existed – to impose a peace agreement based on an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Golan Heights.

Netanyahu’s second big achievement is political stability. In the decade that passed since his defeat in the 1999 Knesset election and until his return to power, three prime ministers replaced one another here. In the decade before that, four prime ministers replaced each other.

Since Netanyahu’s comeback in 2009, changes in the governing coalition and bureaus of senior ministers have been recorded, and Netanyahu has dealt with and is dealing with regular threats to his job. But a maneuver here, a move in the other direction there – and at the top the same person has remained standing for nine years. It’s reminiscent of the eradication of hyperinflation here in the 1980s.

The third achievement is economic prosperity, which is expressed in a jump in private consumption and a feeling of stability. The caveats here are well-known: Not everything is because of Netanyahu (the falling price of oil led to lower costs for overseas flights, etc.); housing prices are still high; social inequality is still great; the education system is in bad shape; corruption is common; and the budget deficit is ballooning. But enough Israelis are enjoying the present situation and aren’t anxious to risk a change. And since Netanyahu would have been stoned to death if the economy had hit a crisis, he is likewise now benefiting from people’s sense of satisfaction and stability.

As long as this situation lasts – the security respite, stable leadership and the feeling of prosperity – many Israelis will follow Netanyahu’s meetings with his police investigators with trepidation, even if they believe he is guilty.