On July 30, the Knesset will recess for the long summer break and will only reconvene three months later after the Jewish High Holidays. This means that despite the cumulative effect of the severe corruption scandals closing in on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — in some of which he is a suspect and others involving close confidants — the collapse of the government is not imminent, nor is a decision by Netanyahu to call early elections.
Three months are a lifetime in Israeli politics. They could clarify whether there’s any truth to Netanyahu’s denials of wrongdoing and claims that all the scandals are nothing but persecution by the leftist media designed to bring down his right-wing government. The three-month hiatus will also indicate whether the newly elected chairman of the opposition Labor Party, Avi Gabbay, will keep climbing in the polls at the expense of the centrist Yesh Atid headed by Yair Lapid, and whether the diehard Likud supporters still have faith in Netanyahu.
Therefore, before embarking on any political analysis of the past week — one of the toughest Netanyahu has known in recent years — a deep breath might be in order to put things in perspective, despite the sense that these events are bringing the Netanyahu rule to its end more than ever before.
Netanyahu himself understands this well. The phoenix of Israeli politics has been knocked down quite a few times, always picking himself up when all seemed lost. At the beginning of this year, several corruption scandals came to light in which he was allegedly directly involved. Police questioned Netanyahu under caution in two of them: allegations of illegally taking gifts from wealthy businessmen (an affair dubbed “case 1000”) and allegations that he illegally conspired with an Israeli media mogul (Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes) to obtain positive press coverage (known as “case 2000”). So far, he has managed to evade significant public damage.
This past week, though, the clouds above his head appeared darker with the wave of arrests in two additional affairs: suspicion of possible corruption and bribery in a multibillion-shekel submarine deal with German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp (“case 3000”), and improprieties in a case involving the Bezeq telecom company. Police questioned Netanyahu’s cousin and close confidant for the past three decades, attorney David Shimron, on suspicion of involvement in the submarine affair and placed him under house arrest.
Although the prime minister himself is not a suspect in this affair, under the terms of Shimron’s house arrest he is banned from speaking with Netanyahu, a restriction that indirectly links the prime minister to the case. The same is true for the Bezeq investigation of suspected fraud and breach of trust on the part of its chairman, Netanyahu’s friend Shaul Elovitch, and others. Netanyahu himself was not questioned about this affair, either, but his confidant, Communications Ministry director Shlomo Filber, spent long hours being grilled by police in mid-July, after which he was remanded to house arrest. He is suspected of passing on classified government information worth millions of shekels to Elovitch.
None of this looks good, nor does it smell good. Both affairs involve suspicions of serious wrongdoing.
The climate of government corruption around Netanyahu combined with Gabbay’s surprising primary election victory on July 10 have created a momentum that the Labor Party has needed desperately in recent years. It appears that while the country is being led by a man up to his neck in various criminal probes, a fresh young face emerges to challenge him.
This combination is also what led Netanyahu on July 13 to launch an urgent offensive. He realized that even if he himself was not under investigation for the time being in the German ships and Bezeq affairs, public sentiment was starting to shift against him. He postponed for a day a visit to France that was planned for July 14-16, put everything on hold and set about trying to stem the tide. His weapon of choice was a media blitz designed to spread the message that all the major Israeli media were conspiring to oust Netanyahu, the Likud and the right wing from power. At noon on July 13, he convened ministers and Knesset members considered close associates and asked them to take to the airwaves and websites to defend him. Some of them did indeed go on radio talk shows and social media later that day using the talking points dictated by the prime minister’s office.
As the day wore on, tensions rose at the prime minister's official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street. Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was interviewed live on the Channel 10 evening news. He said the prime minister was “corrupt” and called on him to step down. Ya’alon, who enjoys the reputation of a clean politician, was questioned by police at the beginning of the year in the submarine affair. In the interview this week, he claimed the prime minister should be investigated about this affair because he must have known what his close associates who were interrogated were up to.
Ya’alon’s interview was the trigger for Netanyahu’s decision to give an improvised interview close to midnight from his home to Channel 20, a station blatantly sympathetic to Netanyahu. Although negligible in terms of viewership, Israel’s major media outlets monitored the interview with great interest and quoted from it. In a departure from his usual mien, Netanyahu appeared unfocused, somewhat tense and restless. He claimed the media and the left were conducting a lynching against him. He directed personal attacks at senior journalists and accused them of an attempt to bring him down, arguing that there was an effort to convict him without the benefit of a trial. These messages were directed first and foremost at the right wing and his Likud associates. Netanyahu believes that as long as he can keep them on his side, he will maintain the upper hand politically.
One can learn about the importance of putting political analysis in perspective from a different time. At the beginning of 2000, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was embroiled in several severe criminal scandals. A year before being re-elected prime minister in 2003, the police concluded that there was a sufficient evidentiary basis to indict him and his two sons on serious charges of receiving bribes from businessman Cyril Kern. At the same time, the Labor Party elected as its leader Maj. Gen. (res.) Amram Mitzna. Like Gabbay, Mitzna was perceived as honest, and the polls had him posing a threat to Likud rule. Mitzna, whose military background provided him with the much-coveted image of a hawk on defense issues, attacked Sharon incessantly over his suspected involvement in criminal wrongdoing. But at the end of the day, in January 2003, Sharon led the Likud Party to a major victory, winning 38 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.
Thus, even if Netanyahu seems to be in terminal decline, Likud supporters are still with him for now — and the game is far from over.