Israel must weigh two threats: Corruption or Iran?

Bloomberg | Daniel Gordis: The possibility of war may help Netanyahu keep his job even after police found reason to indict him.

The phone alerts began to pop up early in the evening. The police, Israelis were informed, were about to reveal their recommendations as to whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be indicted on accusations of fraud and bribery. By 8 p.m., Israelis were glued to their televisions and computers, waiting to hear what the police would say. Netanyahu had sought to block the police from making such public recommendations, but the Supreme Court overruled him and now the police were about to address the public.

The recommendations were clear. Netanyahu, the police said, should be charged with bribery and breach of trust in two matters. The first investigation, known as Case 1000, alleges that Netanyahu accepted lavish gifts from wealthy businessmen in exchange for influence. Case 2000, known as the Yediot Achronot affair, alleges that the prime minister offered the editor of that newspaper, Arnon Mozes, support for a bill that would weaken Israel Hayom, the newspaper owned by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and Mozes’s biggest competitor, in exchange for favorable coverage in the press. The police also recommended that Mozes be indicted. Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit will now consider the charges.

Netanyahu, as expected, denied any wrongdoing, and equally predictably, the opposition in the Knesset called on him to resign immediately. Israeli law does not require a prime minister to step down simply because the police recommend he be indicted. He may not have to resign even if he is indicted, unless he is eventually convicted. The indictment could take a year to come; a conviction could take even longer.

What could bring Netanyahu down would be the collapse of his coalition. At least for now, though, his important coalition partners are sticking by him. Moshe Kahlon, head of the Kulanu (All of Us) Party, could topple the coalition by leaving it, but he has no plans to do so. Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing, nationalist Jewish Home party and Netanyahu’s primary political worry at the moment, agreed that Netanyahu did not have to resign, but seemed to leave his options open by chastising the prime minister for failing to serve as a model of ethical behavior.

And what about the public? If one were to judge by the morning papers, it would seem that large swathes have had enough. Yediot Achronot (the same paper Netanyahu allegedly sought to influence) ran a New York Post-style front cover with a photograph of the prime minister and the word BRIBERY in large letters. The paper’s columnists, many of Israel’s most-widely read, took care to praise their editor (also accused in the affair), but were clear that Netanyahu has lost their trust. “Disgrace.” “Beginning of the End.” “No Way Back.” “Days of Crisis” were the sub-headlines on the front page, each a reference to a different column.

Is the prime minister thus headed to the political desert? It is far too early to know. Although there have been, in recent weeks, large protests in Tel Aviv in opposition to political corruption, the sad reality is that Israelis are no longer shocked by such accusations and the zero-tolerance culture that was (at least in theory) in effect has long since faded. When, in 1977, the press revealed that then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s wife, Leah, maintained a small overseas bank account (left over from their years when he had served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States), a practice then prohibited by Israeli law, the country exploded in fury. Rabin had to resign.

Since then, however, corruption has become widespread. Ehud Olmert resigned as prime minister in March 2009 after allegations of corruption. In February 2016, he became Israel’s first former prime minister to go to jail (he was released a few months ago). He joined Moshe Katsav, who had resigned as president in July 2007 after he was accused of raping members of his staff. Katsav was also convicted and entered prison in December 2011. Katsav shared a cell with Shlomo Benizri, former minister of labor and social welfare, who had also been convicted of fraud. Several dozen former ministers, members of Knesset and other public officials have been convicted of fraud or other crimes and a former chief rabbi is now on his way to jail — a serious blow to the social ethos once prevailed in Israel. Although the country can still take some comfort in the fact that the judiciary has been successful in prosecuting even the country’s highest officials, the corruption trend has not been reversed.

Yet one major factor may well weigh in favor of Netanyahu, the ultimate political survivor. The Israeli version of “the urgent trumping the important” is security trumping everything else. This week, Israel shot down an Iranian drone that had entered its airspace, which led to an Israeli bombing raid on Syrian and Iranian installations in Syria in which an Israeli F-16 was shot down (the first since Ron Aradwas shot down in 1986). Israel followed up with an intense attack on more Syrian and Iranian installations, which the army thinks took out nearly half of Syria’s air defense system.

As both pilots parachuted to safety (one suffered serious injuries but is in an Israeli hospital and expected to make a full recovery), the day ended with a sigh of relief. But a low level of dread prevails. In some of the Israeli press, the day is being called the first battle of an all but inevitable Israel-Iran war. The question on many Israelis’ minds is, “When will the next war begin?”

That may help Netanyahu, for Israelis want to know who will protect them best. And they trust Netanyahu to fight when needed, but not to do so recklessly. Ultimately, more than any other Israeli politician, in times of war (which have been few during his administrations), he proves to be the grownup in the room. In a country that has never known a day of peace since its founding in 1948, no matter how distasteful they may find the corruption allegations, having a strong but level-headed leader matters more to Israelis than anything else.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.