Is this the beginning of the end for Netanyahu?

Benjamin Netanyahu has now used up at least 13 of his nine lives, ...

Posted: Feb. 16, 2018 9:17 AM
Updated: Feb. 16, 2018 9:17 AM

Benjamin Netanyahu has now used up at least 13 of his nine lives, dodging indictments over fraud and breach of trust on at least one occasion as Israeli Prime Minister -- and staging one of the greatest comebacks in Israel's political history by becoming Prime Minister (again) in 2009 and not letting go.

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Should he manage to survive until 2019, he would surpass Israel's greatest leader David Ben-Gurion in longevity.

But will he? After a yearlong investigation, Israeli police concluded this week "there is sufficient evidence" to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two cases that boil down to accepting material gifts and favorable newspaper coverage in exchange for possible political quid pro quos to wealthy benefactors.

Two additional cases of far greater severity are pending, though Netanyahu is not a suspect in either of them. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing, saying of the accusations that "there will not be anything because there is nothing."

The investigation will now move to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and his staff, where a decision will be made as to whether there is sufficient evidence to indict.

Plenty of analysts and pundits have lost money betting against Netanyahu. I remember on the eve of his election for a first term in May 1996, remarking to my colleague Dennis Ross that there was no way Netanyahu could become Prime Minister. I was wrong. Many have been wrong since in underestimating his survival skills. Netanyahu is no speed bump in Israeli politics. But is this the beginning of the end for him?

Much could change before the year ends, but here are some observations about the swirling storm that is engulfing Israeli politics.

We're a long way from Tipperary

Anyone -- friend or foe -- expecting the Prime Minister to be gone yesterday ought to lie down and wait quietly until the feeling passes.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who spent time in prison for fraud and bribery, resigned in 2008, even before the police charged him. Netanyahu, who has maintained that there will be nothing because there is nothing, will not go down without a fight. It took eight months before Olmert was indicted, and he remained as head of a caretaker government until early elections were called.

Any decision to indict will be weighed seriously by the attorney general on the basis of whether he could get a conviction. Not to convict would be a major blow to Israel's political and legal system.

In the meantime, Netanyahu will continue to govern and to demonstrate both his authority and more important his indispensability, particularly on the security side, where he will tout his experience in the face of many challenges.

The idea that the Prime Minister would intentionally create a "wag the dog" situation and take Israel to war as a distraction and diversion is remote. But he will certainly make the case that the country cannot afford to do without him over some gifts of cigars and champagne at such a critical moment.

If indicted, would Netanyahu resign?

An indictment on serious charges -- e.g., bribery, breach of trust, fraud -- would force the issue into the court of public and political opinion.

At a minimum, an indictment would likely trigger new elections called either by Netanyahu or by one of his adversaries. For now, the coalition appears stable -- though Netanyahu's rivals will be watching closely to see how the legal process unfolds -- at least until the attorney general makes a decision to indict or not.

Netanyahu has crossed many of his former partners, some of whom -- such as rival Naftali Bennett, or Moshe Kahlon -- have political aspirations of their own, and if Netanyahu is indicted, the current government will almost certainly not survive.

It's always possible that the coalition might rally around him, but it's hard to imagine a situation where Netanyahu could remain Prime Minister if he goes on trial on corruption charges.

What about the peace process?

The end of Netanyahu does not mean the beginning of a serious peace process. Netanyahu likely never saw himself as the Israeli Prime Minister who was going to be the father of Palestinian statehood, based on a political division of Jerusalem, dismantling of settlements, and borders of a Palestinian state kept close to June 1967 lines.

He has proven himself highly risk-averse on matters of war and peacemaking. And his self-image and ideology make it difficult to imagine he'd ever agree to anything close to the current Palestinian narrative. Still, he's not the most right-wing leader in his coalition, and is indeed flanked by others -- particularly Bennett -- much tougher than he.

But running on the peace process in the current climate -- framed by violence, a dysfunctional Palestinian national movement and a weak Mahmoud Abbas -- hardly seems like a winning hand. The issue in Israeli politics is who can put together a viable coalition. As the old saying goes, a leader without followers is just a guy out for a walk.

To identify the peace process as a key issue in an election, should Netanyahu meet his political demise, you'd need some real drama: a clear choice before the Israeli public of a popular candidate whom Israelis can trust on security and an offer from Palestinian or Arab partners of real peace and security. And that's a stretch.

In fact, Palestinians now worry that under pressure of investigations, Netanyahu may want to solidify his ties to the right and take action on the ground that might foreclose once and for all the possibility of a two-state solution.

There is the matter of the emerging Trump peace initiative. In an effort to support Netanyahu, the Trump administration might roll out its ultimate deal on terms likely to make Israel's acceptance possible and aimed at boosting the US-Israeli relationship.

The Palestinians would almost certainly reject it, but it would reaffirm that Netanyahu holds the key to managing ties with Washington.

And if several Arab states talked about it positively, it would also boost his stock. On the other hand, the probability that the Trump plan is almost certain to fail might give the administration an excuse to delay it given the unsettled situation in Israel.

Would anything change if Netanyahu went?

Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics for most of the past decade. It's illogical to assume his departure would not create a new and dynamic political reality. But what kind of reality is another matter. With the deaths of Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon -- the last of Israel's founding generation -- Israel faces its own kind of leadership transition and challenges. And a younger generation of Prime Ministers -- Olmert (recently out of prison), Ehud Barak (deeply mistrusted) and Netanyahu (maybe soon to be indicted) haven't really risen to replace them.

Former speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg, used to compare Peres to an evergreen tree -- stately and impressive, but underneath, nothing grows.

Netanyahu has clearly and willfully groomed no successors, and has in fact alienated most of his former Likud colleagues. Still, it is possible that Likud might fare better in the next election without Netanyahu.

Who on the right would replace him? And who has the political smarts, the stamina and security credentials to motivate the Likud base and broaden it to take votes away from the center right?

Several members of Likud would like the job. But who among them would be electable and able to form a stable governing coalition?

As for the Labor Party and its leader, Avi Gabbay, a self-made millionaire who seems able to relate to working-class Israelis, and whom The Guardian described as the Israeli Emmanuel Macron -- who really knows?

Labor hasn't won an election in 18 years and right now is polling third after Likud and the center-right party Yesh Atid, headed by another possible prime ministerial candidate, Yair Lapid -- whom some consider a front-runner and who testified in the ongoing investigation against Netanyahu. In any event, it's far too early to speculate on who might win the prime ministerial sweepstakes whenever Netanyahu does leave the scene.

It's possible -- though not likely -- that Netanyahu somehow survives. If he doesn't, perhaps the change and transition will produce new leaders and real choices.

Indeed, it's still way too early to predict the course of the investigation, let alone the future of Israeli politics. But one thing is certain: Buckle your seat belts. The politics of an already volatile Middle East are about to become more turbulent and uncertain still.

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