Israel’s prime minister increasingly resembles America’s 37th president.
When the final chapter on Benjamin Netanyahu’s political life is written — and it may be a long time from now — he is likely to go down as the Richard Nixon of Israel: politically cunning, strategically canny, toxically flawed.
The flaws came further to light on Thursday when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he would indict the prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu called the inquiry “a witch hunt” and accused Mandelblit of being “weak,” sounding (surely not by coincidence) just like Donald Trump on the subject of Jeff Sessions and the Russia investigation.
Israeli law allows Netanyahu to contest the indictment through a hearing, a process that could take as long as a year. He has no intention of resigning and hopes to win a fifth term when elections are held on April 9.
Perhaps he will. He shouldn’t.
That’s not because Netanyahu is necessarily guilty, or guilty of much. Previous Israeli leaders, including Yitzhak Rabin, have been subject to legal inquests that hinge on relatively trivial crimes. The charges against Netanyahu — the most serious of which involves the claim that he helped a businessman obtain favorable regulatory decisions in exchange for positive media coverage — are still far from conclusive.
Netanyahu’s solution has been to scrounge for votes on the farther — and farthest — right. A few of those votes will come from Otzma Yehudit (or “Jewish Power”), a racist party descended from Rabbi Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach Party. Its leader, Michael Ben-Ari, was denied a United States visa because Washington rightly considers Kach a terrorist organization. If Netanyahu manages to cobble together a ruling coalition, Ben-Ari could become a power broker within it.
That alone is reason enough to want to see Netanyahu given the boot. Add to the list his
- demagogic attacks on Israeli Arabs, his
- closeness to far-right European leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and his
- public sympathy for an Israeli soldier who killed a wounded Palestinian terrorist in cold blood, and a consistent picture emerges.
Netanyahu is a man for whom no moral consideration comes before political interest and whose chief political interest is himself. He is a cynic wrapped in an ideology inside a scheme.
Nor is the blight simply moral. Jews the world over face a swelling and increasingly deadly tide of anti-Semitism, while Zionism has become a dirty word in left-wing circles. To have an Israeli prime minister lend credence to the slur that Zionism is a form of racism by prospectively bringing undoubted racists into his coalition is simply unforgivable. It emboldens the progressive assault on Israel. It leaves its defenders embarrassed and perplexed.
Most seriously, it weakens a central element in the defense of Israel and the Jews: moral self-confidence. Anti-Israel slanders may abound, but they will do little to hurt the state if a majority of Israelis understand they have no serious foundation in truth. Netanyahu’s behavior jeopardizes that confidence.
As an election approaches, Avichai Mandelblit, Israel’s low-key attorney general, is under intense pressure from both the prime minister and the public
When Avichai Mandelblit first considered an offer to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration in 2013, he told Israel’s prime minister that he’d accept if he could finish his doctorate and stay out of politics, aides to him say.
Mr. Mandelblit managed to earn his Ph.D. in law. But now as Israel’s attorney general, he is at the center of one of the country’s biggest political storms.
Following two years of corruption probes targeting Mr. Netanyahu—and a recommendation by Israeli police to charge him with bribery, fraud and breach of trust—Mr. Mandelblit is weighing whether to indict his boss. He must also decide whether to do so ahead of April elections the Israeli leader called early to run for a fifth term. Mr. Mandelblit’s decision could come as soon as February.
At the heart of the political drama are two men who have responded to the crisis in starkly different ways. Mr. Netanyahu has used angry bluster and a public campaign to cast doubt on the corruption charges and his handpicked attorney general. Mr. Mandelblit, like the dogged doctoral student he once was before his 25-year career in the legal branch of Israel’s military, has avoided the limelight and burrowed into the legal merits of the corruption charges, say friends and colleagues. A decision to indict a sitting prime minister would be unprecedented and could upend Israeli politics.
“He basically holds Israel’s political destiny in his hands,” said Shalom Lipner, a scholar with the Brookings Institution think tank who worked for several prime ministers including Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. Mandelblit’s role is especially delicate because he also serves as the government’s top legal adviser, which means he’s both advising Mr. Netanyahu and judging him for alleged crimes against the state.
Notably, the two men continue to hold private meetings. Those have been the subject of several court challenges, including one from a government watchdog group that petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court last year to halt them. The country’s top court rejected it, saying Mr. Mandelblit can be trusted to maintain “a ‘Chinese Wall’ between his various responsibilities.”
.. But their working relationship hasn’t stopped the embattled prime minister from attacking the investigation. Recently, Mr. Netanyahu has released a series of videos urging Mr. Mandelblit not to announce any decision to indict him ahead of the April 9 elections, saying such a move would unfairly sway the outcome.
Mr. Netanyahu has also launched a slick social media campaign playing down some of the allegations—that he traded favors for better news coverage—by comparing bribery without money to soccer without Argentine player Lionel Messi or celebrity Kim Kardashian without her husband, the rapper Kanye West.
“What are they talking about when they say bribery? About money? About envelopes? About bank accounts? About Greek Islands? Not at all! They are talking about favorable coverage,” said a visibly upset Mr. Netanyahu in a prime time televised speech earlier this month.
Protesters, alleging that Mr. Mandelblit is delaying a decision to benefit his boss, have gathered outside his home every Saturday since late 2016, booing his name alongside effigies of Messrs. Netanyahu Mandelblit and the other major players in the probe— billionaires, media moguls and witnesses—all in prisoners’ garb. His father’s grave was recently vandalized and he has been the subject of threatening graffiti.
“Netanyahu thought that by bringing the election ahead he would pre-empt Mandelblit and win the election and then deal with the legal issues after it,” said Anshel Pfeffer, author of “Bibi, The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.” “But since Mandelblit does not seem to be intimidated it’s now becoming a major issue.”
Politically, it is more complicated. Even if he’s indicted, Mr. Netanyahu is still favored to win the elections, with recent polls showing his supporters saying he can still manage Israel’s economy and protect the nation’s security. But Mr. Netanyahu’s challenge would be finding coalition partners willing to form a government with him if he’s indicted. He would get the chance to defend himself in a pre-indictment hearing before charges proceed.
The stress of the job shows. Mr. Mandelblit’s hair, once light red, has noticeably grayed.