Netanyahu Is Sinking

The submarine affair underscores what we've known all along – we can no longer turn a bind eye to the prime minister's stinginess and greed

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the INS Rahav submarine, January 12, 2016.
Kobi Gideon

About a year and a half ago, I interviewed some of the most prominent of the Likud party’s new Knesset members. I also spoke with many activists who are connected in various ways to the ruling party’s institutions. Those were the days when the cases against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were still under investigation – before the police and prosecutors made their recommendations and, of course, before the attorney general made his decision.

The standard tune they sang – some with authentic enthusiasm, others in obedient recital – was that you don’t topple a prime minister over cigars and champagne. And also not over pictures of Sara Netanyahu on the Walla internet news site.

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So what, I asked, is your red line? When will you say enough is enough? In the answer to those questions, two phrases recurred against and again – “cash-filled envelopes” and, above all, “the submarine's case.”

Here, for instance, is what MK Yoav Kish, one of my interviewees, replied when asked what he would do if indictments were filed against the prime minister: “I don’t know. Let’s wait and see what for. That also matters. If there’s an indictment over the submarines – and he says he’s not involved – that’s a serious indictment. If there’s an indictment over cigars and champagne, that’s less serious” (Haaretz, September 19, 2017).

Thus it’s no surprise as soon as Yair Lapid – the best campaigner in Israeli politics after Netanyahu – assumed control of the Kahol Lavan joint ticket’s campaign, the issue of the submarines moved to the top of the agenda. The battle over public opinion in this election will be won or lost over the issue of Netanyahu’s involvement in this case. This is where he is at greatest risk, and it’s an immediate risk – in contrast to the future and still unclear ramifications of the indictments in the other cases and the ensuing legal proceedings.

Even though Netanyahu’s loyalists vociferously repeat the claim that he has no connection to the submarines case and that this is a blood libel and persecution, the revelation that Netanyahu held shares in a company connected to the German conglomerate ThyssenKrupp and the disclosure of the financial transfers from Nathan Milikowsky to his cousin Netanyahu are a severe blow to the prime minister. He will find it difficult – as Likud members themselves said in those 2017 interviews – to make this issue disappear.

These disclosures not only undermine public trust in him, including among right-wing voters, but they also affect the world of realpolitik. Who would wager on a horse that can only gallop for a limited distance? And who, given the depth of Netanyahu’s legal troubles, wouldn’t think, if only for a moment, of the morning after – the day Netanyahu has managed to postpone for almost 20 years?

How ironic that it isn’t the divisiveness, the infighting, the incitement or any of the other milestones in Netanyahu’s legacy that will bring him down in the end, but rather his notorious stinginess. Had he stopped – even at a very late stage of the game, after he was already embroiled in criminal cases, in part, for this very reason – and paid for his own legal defense, he would never have gotten caught up in the submarines and the Milikowsky money. Netanyahu’s request that the permits committee of the State Comptroller’s Office let him extract additional money from his cousin for his legal defense is what ultimately led to disclosure of the existence of his shares and of his shifting stories about them – something that also hasn’t redounded to his credit.

Likud members always knew who they were dealing with. I asked them, “After all, you don’t live this way; you pay for your meals and your jewelry. Why do you accept such behavior?” The answer I got generally went as follows: “We don’t like it, but we accept it.” In other words, they’re willing to overlook minor matters – the known weaknesses of the man who has brought them to power time after time, like his stinginess and his tendency to rely on tycoons.

But now, his leeway for denial is gradually shrinking. They can no longer turn a blind eye.