An old Jewish folktale explains Benjamin Netanyahu’s political strategy in the face of the escalating corruption case against him:
A Polish count demanded that the rabbi of the village on his lands appear before him. The rabbi and his assistant arrived to find the count petting his hound. “Teach this dog to talk,” said the count, “or I’ll expel the Jews.” The rabbi stroked his beard, and replied, “Certainly, I’ll teach him. But it will take a year.”
After they left the manor house, the assistant demanded, “How could you agree? We’re doomed!”
“Don’t worry,” said the rabbi. “A year is a long time. Either the dog will die or the count will die.”
The story is so well known that in Hebrew that you need only say “the count will die” to have told the whole thing. In Netanyahu’s case, it has a double meaning: He’s playing for time, and he’s presenting himself — the cigar-puffing fourth-term prime minister — as being like the rabbi in the tale, the little guy who’s up against malevolent forces.
On Tuesday evening, Israel’s national police force released its long-awaited conclusions in two investigations against Netanyahu. In both, it said there was sufficiently solid evidence to indict the prime minister for bribery.
In one case, the police said, Netanyahu received 1 million shekels ($280,000) worth of cigars, champagne and jewelry from two businessmen, and gave a quid pro quo including an attempt to change tax law in a manner “contrary to the national interest” and pressing the U.S. administration to extend one of the men’s American visa. In the other, police said, Netanyahu negotiated with the publisher of one of Israel’s two leading newspapers to help it financially in return for favorable coverage.
Netanyahu answered the police with a speech insisting on his innocence. That’s his right.
But for months he has portrayed the investigation as a slow-motion coup attempt by the press, the left and the police. In Tuesday’s speech, Netanyahu suggested the police were driven by personal animus, though he’d dedicated his “entire life” to the state. In short, the dangerous, powerful police were trying to crush poor, idealistic Benjamin Netanyahu.
The victim gambit is transparently false. But despite the damning recommendations, peculiar legal and political twists could help Netanyahu hold on to power.
To start with, the police only recommend. It’s the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, who has to decide whether to indict. In theory, the threshold of evidence should be the same for the prime minister as for any citizen. But indicting the prime minister is likely to lead to the fall of the government and possibly to new elections. If, after all that, the prosecution fails to get a conviction, it could confirm Netanyahu’s narrative of a coup by law enforcement.
So Mandelblit, never known for quick decisions, is likely to be even more cautious about this one. A year could easily pass.
Ironically, the police may have given Netanyahu two advantages in the political battles during that time.
One is that they recommended charging Noni Mozes, publisher of the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, with offering Netanyahu a bribe to reduce the circulation of the competing Israel Hayom. The latter paper’s support for Netanyahu makes Fox News look unbiased. If Mozes uses his pages, however subtly, to raise doubts about the case, the readers of both major newspapers will be getting coverage slanted in Netanyahu’s favor.
In the other bribery case, one allegation is that Netanyahu tried to create a tax break for Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, the main supplier of his cigars and other goodies. A key witness is former finance minister Yair Lapid, who opposed the move. Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, is today the highest-polling challenger to Netanyahu for the premiership. So the prime minister’s allies are already accusing Lapid of giving testimony purely to push Netanyahu from office.
For now, Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners are sticking with him, at least until they see a major shift in public mood. Yet that shift could be toward Netanyahu if the tension on the Syrian border keeps growing. When war looms, people tend to rally around the government.
It is impossible to prove that Netanyahu is acting or speaking a shade too aggressively in order to focus attention on the external threat. It would also be naive to ignore the possibility.
Barring a flare-up in the north, though, the likely escalation is in demonstrations against corruption, which have already been going on for months. Eventually, at least one coalition partner will decide not to be stained by association with a four-term prime minister who allegedly preferred cigars, champagne and sycophantic news coverage to his country’s welfare.
The essential flaw in Netanyahu’s strategy is that he’s not a victim. He’s the man who has grown used to thinking that power is his personal property. And after the police recommendations, it might not take all that long for his support to crumble.