Bibi Is Burning Down the House
Faced with legal threats, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won’t hesitate to sow doubt, chaos, and confusion in order to remain in power.
The Israeli police recommendation on Tuesday to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in a series of corruption cases was hardly unexpected. The investigations into what have been dubbed Case 1000 and Case 2000 — both involving Netanyahu receiving gifts and favors from various business and media moguls in return for interceding on their behalf in different ways — have been ongoing for months, with the public lapping up salacious details involving the prime minister’s cigar habits and his wife’s penchant for pink champagne and expensive jewelry.
But the fact that the police recommendations were the result of a long, slow-burning investigation have not made their impact any softer. Netanyahu immediately took to television to defend himself, while various opposition figures called on him to step down immediately.
For all the sound and fury, unless Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, decides to indict Netanyahu — a decision that could take months — the prime minister is not going anywhere. Key party leaders in his coalition, including Naftali Bennett, Moshe Kahlon, and Avigdor Lieberman, have already expressed their reluctance to bring down the government or force Netanyahu aside. Yet this does not mean that Israel is going to enjoy a measure of quiet and stability until Mandelblit determines whether the police recommendations will be acted upon or ignored. From this point forward, Netanyahu’s survival will depend on him generating as much chaos as possible.
Netanyahu’s primary targets are Israeli voters and the court of public opinion, through appealing to their primal instincts. In that domain, Netanyahu is a master with no equal among Israeli politicians who came before him. One of Netanyahu’s farthest-reaching accomplishments has been to transform Israel’s political system from one dominated by parties to one dominated by personalities. When Netanyahu first made his move to take over the Likud party 25 years ago, the party establishment largely dismissed him. Because he had not risen through the Likud ranks and was not enmeshed in the party apparatus, he was written off as someone who could only go so far in a party-dominated ecosystem. But Netanyahu, by behaving far more like an American politician than an Israeli one, understood the power of imagery and how to use television and mass media in a way that other Israeli politicians did not.
Not only did Netanyahu make elections about him rather than about his party, but he has also made sure ever since to emphasize personality over policy as well. It is this unprecedented creation of the cult of political personality that has allowed Netanyahu to cultivate a myth of being “Mr. Security” despite being more reticent to use force than most previous prime ministers in Israeli history, a champion of settlements despite building them at a slower rate than his predecessors, and an effective sideliner of his political rivals.
Since the first hint emerged that these corruption cases might be dangerous to Netanyahu, he has used his American politicking style to emphasize that — in a refrain familiar to American ears — the investigations are a witch hunt constructed on a foundation of lies and fake news. He has tarred the media as biased, dismissed the police as carrying out a personal vendetta against him and his family, and claimed over and over that the investigations are an effort by those who cannot beat him at the ballot box to topple him through undemocratic means.
The more he has hammered away at the credibility of the career bureaucrats tasked with looking into his actions, the more he has polarized the country and galvanized a righteous outrage among his supporters, who at this point are unlikely to believe that any charges against their political icon are objective and untainted. Continuing to sow chaos and confusion and emphasizing that shadowy forces are out to get him is the best way for Netanyahu to ensure that any charges brought against him create too large a risk of ripping the country apart. Continuing to sow chaos and confusion and emphasizing that the shadowy forces out to get him cannot be trusted is the best way for Netanyahu to avoid having to step down under a cloud of indictments. It will put pressure on Mandelblit to let Netanyahu off the hook rather than risk ripping the country apart and creating an even bigger crisis of confidence in Israel’s institutions than would ensue with the simple indictment and resignation of a prime minister.
The one sphere in which this dynamic does not hold true is within Netanyahu’s own Likud caucus. Some of his more ardent defenders are willing to elevate his interests above all else, but others are far more skeptical. The immediate statements from Likud and other coalition members backing Netanyahu reveal that nobody in power wants to risk upending the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history. These statements do not reflect any great attachment or loyalty to Netanyahu’s personally. Unlike most Likud voters, many Likud members of parliament and party functionaries have never lost sight of the fact that Netanyahu is merely a vessel to fulfill the party’s goals and spread its ideology. Once his legal troubles hurt his ability to deliver, he can count on a quiet rebellion to spread within the party ranks and an effort to replace him with someone more effective.
In order to preempt such a situation, Netanyahu needs to create disorder on another front by catering to Likud’s most extreme impulses, which at the moment means advocating annexation of the West Bank in whole or in part. While Netanyahu has until now held the line on annexation, warning eager lawmakers that doing so without American approval would be courting disaster, he also knows that it may be the only way for him to weather the coming storm with the support of his party intact.
Netanyahu has always done or said whatever he thought he needed to in order to remain in power. Annexing settlements, even if it is limited to the Jerusalem bedroom community of Maale Adumim, would bring unparalleled international condemnation, a crisis with neighboring Jordan, and turmoil among West Bank Palestinians, but it would also go a long way toward ensuring that Netanyahu is not replaced by his own party. It is yet another front where chaos may be detrimental to Israel’s national interests, but beneficial to Netanyahu’s personal interests.
Netanyahu is not going anywhere anytime soon — and he is willing to burn down the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street before he voluntarily turns over the keys. While the conflagration might be months away, there is no doubt that Netanyahu is preparing to strike the match.