Netanyahu masters politics but can he best the legal system?
As the cases mount against the prime minister, a battle looms between a savvy politician and an independent judicial system
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, known in Israel as Bibi, is now being directly investigated in three cases, and advisors close to him are involved in a fourth one which he will likely be investigated for but not indicted.
Investigators are confident that at least one of the cases is air-tight. The common wisdom was that Netanyahu was severely hurt politically by the corruption charges he is facing. Many have speculated that he will be vulnerable to political blackmail from the smaller parties in the coalition.
In what may have been an attempt to test this theory, the religious parties put up a piece of legislation exempting ultra-orthodox citizens from serving in the military, designed to win brownie points with religious constituencies. The Yisrael Beitenu party (Israel our Home), the mostly Russian party run by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, opposed the idea as their base is both nationalistic and generally anti-religious.
This was a crisis of unprecedented magnitude in the annals of this coalition. This should have been the prime minister’s weakest moment.
However, that is not how things turned out. Netanyahu was cushioned by public opinion. According to all the polls, if elections took place now the Likud would win comfortably and the resultant coalition would be even more comfortable for the governing party. When asked which politician is most suitable to serve as Prime Minister, Netanyahu is far and away the leader with three times the number of his nearest competitor.
Meanwhile, several of his competitors were faced with unflattering poll numbers and were concerned that if they brought down a popular right-wing prime minister, their hard-line voters would mete out punishment at the polls.
The prime minister deftly maneuvered to turn the crisis to his advantage. He showed little concern over the fate of the government. His negotiation style was so lackadaisical that many suspected he was actually hoping the government would fall. In an effort to show that he means business, Netanyahu dared the opposition parties to table a no-confidence motion and wondered if they are “scared of elections”.
His spooked coalition partners ended up negotiating a deal which granted the prime minister stability while he remained above the fray. The agreement guaranteed stability for the coalition until 2019. The religious parties promised not to introduce any new problematic laws which may destabilize the coalition. The manner in which Netanyahu successfully engaged in brinkmanship will guarantee that the coalition partners will keep it.
In the meantime, Bibi has also adopted a strong strategy to insulate himself from the investigations. Taking a page from the Trump playbook, he has hinted that the charges are part of a left-wing plot encompassing the media, police and the court system to bring down a popular government. He accused the Chief of Police, a settler from Kiryat Arba, of being part of this left-wing conspiracy.
Despite its idiosyncrasies, this narrative is quite strong amongst his constituents. This is not too surprising. The Israeli police has very low levels of trust from all sectors of the population. According to recent studies, only 28% of Israelis believe the police treat citizens equally, an identical number has trust in the media, while less than half trust the court system.
Just as importantly, this government has inarguably had achievements in a wide range of fields. Israel is now less isolated than ever before as the Trump administration is unreservedly supportive, India is turning into an ally and relations with African nations are increasingly warm. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is seen by most Israelis as a triumph.
The current government has also been efficient in passing well-balanced budgets. Unemployment is low and even the price of housing, one of the major bones of contention for the Israeli middle class, has stopped skyrocketing.
If so, against all odds Netanyahu has mastered his political obstacles. However, the Prime Minister’s control does not extend to the court system. The Israeli legal system is remarkably independent and has shown a determination – some would say zealousness – to prosecute Israeli political leaders.
The police have turned three of Bibi’s confidantes into states witnesses through threats and cajoling and are sparing no effort in capturing the biggest fish of all. The police and State Attorney’s office smell blood and they excel at tracking their prey. In recent years, a prime minister, president and several ministers have spent time in jail. However, none of these individuals were popular leaders with no clear political rivals. If so, the success of Bibi’s maneuver is setting him up for a full-frontal collision with the legal system.
However, it is unclear if Netanyahu has the stomach for this. While the prime minister enjoys using Trump-style tactics, he lacks the nihilism and genuinely confrontational nature of the current occupant of the White House. In his nature, Netanyahu is a thoughtful student of history with an appreciation for the importance and viability of Israeli institutions.
Indeed, he has been understated, by the standards of today’s guttural politics of social media, in his attacks on law enforcement and left the worst comments to his proxies.
Unfortunately, Netanyahu has shown a distressing tendency to prefer saving his own skin than doing something to benefit the country. If and when he is indicted and the prime minister’s survival is on the line, how far will he go in undermining Israeli institutions? All indications are that in an all-out war, Netanyahu has the upper hand.
But the blow such a fight would land on Israeli institutions may be incalculable. The entire world will be watching to see what happens when the rule of law and the new breed of populism clash.