By Ruth Margalit
07 March 2018
Israel is famously low on pomp and circumstance. Attend an Israeli wedding and guests are likely to appear in jeans, with sunglasses perched on their foreheads. When Donald Trump landed at Ben Gurion Airport last May, the Israeli government tried to keep it stately—red carpet, military orchestra—but it wasn’t long before a member of the ruling Likud Party whipped out his cell phone and snapped a selfie with the American President on the tarmac. So minimal is the ceremoniousness that, whenever it exists, it tends to take on outsized meaning.
One such ceremony took place on Monday, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Trump in the Oval Office. Netanyahu tried to project an air of business as usual—the relationship between the United States and Israel “has never been better,” he gushed—even as Trump may have quickened the Israeli leader’s pulse by saying, nonchalantly, that “we have a shot” at “doing” peace with the Palestinians. But only one thing was on the mind of the travelling Israeli press corps. A reporter asked, “Prime Minister Netanyahu, would you like to comment about the latest news coming from Israel?”
“I will later,” Netanyahu replied quietly, maintaining a glued-on smile. It was a momentary exchange, imperceptible, perhaps, to American audiences, but not to Israelis who lately mine the Prime Minister’s every move for clues of what’s to come.
On February 13th, Netanyahu, citing poor weather conditions for the flying of his government-issued helicopter, abruptly scrapped plans to attend the opening of a rehabilitation facility in the northern city of Tiberias. Reports in the Israeli press later confirmed why. Netanyahu had learned that at 8:45 that evening, the police were set to issue their findings in two corruption investigations against him: one, called Case 1000, alleging that he had accepted bribes from two tycoons in the form of cigars, champagne, and jewelry for his wife, Sara; the other—Case 2000—an investigation into whether he had colluded with the publisher of a major newspaper to receive favorable coverage, all of which he has vehemently denied. In a third corruption case, a former Netanyahu spokesman is alleged to have approached a judge in 2015 with a proposed deal: the judge would be named attorney general if she dropped a case against Netanyahu’s wife for misusing a hundred thousand dollars in public funds. (The Netanyahus have dismissed the charges as “absurd and unfounded,” and referred to the alleged offer to the judge as “hallucinatory.”)
The “news from Israel” that the reporter asked Netanyahu about as he met with the Trump were reports that the Prime Minister’s former spokesman, Nir Hefetz, had agreed to become the third former aide to coöperate with investigators and turn over recordings of Netanyahu and his wife in exchange for not standing trial. Hefetz’s coöperation could be the most significant development yet in the corruption cases surrounding Netanyahu.
After Netanyahu’s meeting with Trump, his office issued a statement saying that the latest allegations were “nonsense.” For months, Netanyahu and his shrinking inner circle of advisers have tried to prepare his base for the worst by publicly stating that the police were going to implicate him in corruption cases. “So what?” Netanyahu told a gathering of supporters last December “Over sixty per cent of police recommendations end up in the trash.”
Yet the decision by the head of the Israeli police to recommended, on February 13th, that Netanyahu be prosecuted on two counts of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust undermined his denials. Most damaging, perhaps, was the disclosure of an alleged quid pro quo with one of the tycoons, the Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, which Netanyahu had until then tried to portray as a gift of mere trifles by a friend with nothing promised in return. But the sum of money the police outlined—nearly three hundred thousand dollars—could no longer be brushed off as merely “a cigar,” as Netanyahu had described it. One by one, the police listed assurances from Netanyahu to Milchan, including the promise of a ten-year extension of a tax-exemption law for repatriated Israelis, from which Milchan would have directly benefited.
Moments before the police released their recommendation that he be prosecuted, a beleaguered Netanyahu, flanked by two Israeli flags, gave a fiery speech from his residence. “You know I do everything with only one thing in mind—the good of the country,” he said. “Not for cigars from a friend, not for media coverage, not for anything. Only for the good of the state.” In a sign of desperation, he then opted for the Israeli equivalent of two Hail Marys: he recounted his long and storied service in the military and name-dropped the late Shimon Peres as someone who, like him, had worked to advance the interests of Milchan. (There is no Israeli politician, it would seem, that the film mogul didn’t try to cozy up to.) The police findings, Netanyahu concluded, were “biased and extreme, and full of holes like a Swiss cheese.”
Both cases are now with Israel’s attorney general, a Netanyahu appointee, who will decide whether to indict the Prime Minister. Another investigation, which has ensnared some of the people closest to Netanyahu but in which he hasn’t officially been named as a target, involves suspected conflicts of interest surrounding Israel’s purchase of German-made submarines and missile ships. The breadth of the inquiries attests to three hallmarks that have come to define Netanyahu’s rule: hobnobbing with moneyed interests, an obsession with the media, and a sense that he alone can promote Israel’s security interests.
Israeli law prohibits a cabinet minister from serving under indictment but says nothing about an indicted Prime Minister. This means that Netanyahu could, in theory, govern through the end of his term, in November, 2019, even if charges were brought against him. Many analysts wouldn’t put this past him. “It’s the Louis XIV syndrome,” Nahum Barnea, Israel’s preëminent columnist, for Yediot Ahronot, told me. “More than just saying that the state is him, his feeling and the feeling of those around him, is that the damage to the party and the country by him resigning would be so great that it’s worth doing things that would have been unthinkable were it anyone else.”
Still, there are indications that Netanyahu’s coalition of ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties—fragile to begin with—might not survive an indictment. Netanyahu can afford to lose only six seats out of parliament’s hundred and twenty seats for his government to collapse. While Likud still comes in ahead of all other parties in recent polls, its coalition partners “might not stand the heat in the kitchen of public opinion,” Amit Segal, a political correspondent for Israel’s Channel 2, told me.
Other Israeli leaders had been stained by corruption before. Ehud Olmert served sixteen months in prison for bribery and fraud; before him, Ariel Sharon was alleged to have accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in what became known as the “Greek Island Affair,” though no charges were ever brought against him. The difference, according to Doron Navot, a scholar of Israeli corruption who has written extensively on the subject, is that Netanyahu’s misconduct is part of a far-reaching political agenda. Netanyahu has served longer than any other Israeli Prime Minister apart from David Ben-Gurion, yet Netanyahu still operates as an underdog, fuelled by divisiveness and resentment against the country’s “élites”: the courts, media, academia, and now even the police. “Sharon and Olmert didn’t go against democratic institutions; they were part of them,” Navot told me. “Netanyahu doesn’t simply go against these institutions and tries to annihilate them, he is motivated by a belief in his singular role in Jewish history. That in itself breeds corruption, because it can be used to justify almost anything.”
A week after the police released findings in Cases 1000 and 2000, a Netanyahu confidant who once ran the communications ministry under him agreed to provide evidence in a vast and separate graft inquiry, known as Case 4000, involving Israel’s telecommunications giant, Bezeq. “I carried out clear instructions from Netanyahu,” Shlomo Filber told police investigators, according to Israel’s Channel 2. “He clarified to me who should be looked out for, and how.” (“This never happened,” Netanyahu said in response.)
Of the various investigations, the allegation that Netanyahu’s wife mishandled public funds by ordering catering services when the Netanyahus already employed a full-time chef may seem of secondary importance—a mere distraction. But the alleged efforts to clear her name by bribing a judge appear to bolster what insiders have long argued: that Sara’s hold on her husband is such that her personal grudges often dictate his policy. It is in large part because of Sara, those who know them say, that Netanyahu now finds himself with no heir apparent. As Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s former national-security adviser, told me, “She directs him, and points at real or imagined enemies, and by doing that she has exacerbated his already existing paranoias.” Arad added, “There are people she doesn’t allow to come to the residence. Anyone who criticizes them is seen as a leftist, even if their credentials are to the right of Netanyahu.”
Another figure who has grown in importance as Netanyahu’s inner circle has narrowed is the Prime Minister’s eldest son, Yair. At twenty-six, Yair still lives with his parents at taxpayers’ expense. He doesn’t have a job and is known primarily for directing much of his father’s social-media presence and for tarnishing Israeli human-rights groups online. In January, an illicit audio recording was released of Yair, during a night out with friends, talking about paying prostitutes and strippers and offering to set up his ex-girlfriend with an acquaintance in order to settle a financial debt. The combination of his denigration of women (“Let’s ‘load’ the waitress,” Yair told his friends at one point), the amounts of money being tossed around casually, as well as the fact that a state-funded driver chauffeured the drunken group from one strip club to another, made for explosive material in Israel. Yair has since issued a tepid apology. But his dubious reputation was nothing new.
Last summer, after the deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Yair weighed in from across the ocean, drawing an equivalence between neo-Nazis and leftist demonstrators. “To put things in perspective. I’m a Jew, I’m an Israeli, the neo nazis scums in Virginia hate me and my country. But they belong to the past,” he wrote on his private Facebook page. “However, the thugs of Antifa and BLM who hate my country (and America too in my view) just as much are getting stronger and stronger.” The post was taken down two days after it was published, and it’s unclear whether the Prime Minister knew about it. But the message resonated: Netanyahu had thrown in his lot with Trump and with rising anti-liberal forces.
Israelis have generally drifted rightward after the failure of two rounds of peace talks, in 2000 and 2008, and Netanyahu has become increasingly reliant on a far-right coalition of parties. Yet polls show that the dominance of his right-wing bloc may now be imperilled. Its main threat comes from a four-year-old centrist party called Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”), headed by Yair Lapid, a telegenic former journalist and television host who has taken on the anti-corruption mantle. In a surprising recent revelation, Lapid was named a key state witness in Case 1000. Lapid served as the finance minister from 2013 to 2015; he is said to have testified that, during that period, Netanyahu personally asked him to extend the tax-exemption law that would have benefitted Milchan, a request that Lapid turned down but never reported at the time.
Netanyahu’s visit to Washington is certain to endow him with the stature he desperately needs. His speech on Tuesday to the pro-Israel group aipac will provide him with the ultimate platform to hold forth on the one issue that may stand between him and political ouster: Iran.
Last month, an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace, from the north, and was felled by Israeli missiles. The drone was fashioned after an American aircraft that Iran intercepted in 2011, suggesting that Iranian military capabilities have grown far more sophisticated than analysts had previously thought. In retaliation, the Israeli Air Force, which has been operating covertly in Syria since 2012, sent F-16 fighter jets to attack an Iranian command center in central Syria. On the flight back to Israel, Syrian anti-aircraft missiles struck one of the F-16s. It was the first time an Israeli plane had been downed since 1982, an indication that the regional map has changed dramatically: Iran has taken advantage of the chaos in Syria to entrench its Revolutionary Guard forces less than five miles from the Israeli border.
Sixty-nine per cent of Israelis believe that, despite the international agreement reached in 2015, Tehran is on the verge of achieving nuclear capabilities that would be existentially threatening to the state of Israel, according to the Israel Democracy Institute. And with Iran now widening its influence in Syria and in Lebanon, by way of Hezbollah, Israelis may be too wary to replace Netanyahu, their self-styled Mr. Security.
Despite the cheerful air that Netanyahu tried to project during his meeting with Trump, those who know him say that he is increasingly rattled, on edge, and isolated. His entourage of close advisers is gone—all embroiled in scandals and forced to resign or, worse, testify against him. But Netanyahu has been prematurely written off before. In the days leading up to the last elections, in 2015, polls showed Likud losing by four seats to the Zionist Union (a centre-left coalition of the historic Labour Party and a smaller party called Hatnuah). But then came Netanyahu’s famous dog whistle—Arab voters were “coming out in droves to the ballot boxes,” he warned—and Likud won handily. He was deemed “the magician,” back from the dead.
This time, however, his air of invincibility is punctured. Many in Israel believe that he may call for early elections, if only to preëmpt having to run with an indictment hanging over his head. “There’s an uneasy feeling in Likud that the slogan that brought down the Party in the nineteen-nineties—‘Corrupt people, we’re sick of you’—is back, and the fear is that Likud will fall because of this,” Yoaz Hendel, a former communications adviser for Netanyahu, told me. All this has led Netanyahu’s admirers and detractors alike to imagine a scenario that was once unimaginable: a political landscape without him.
If there is a signature achievement to Benjamin Netanyahu’s decade in power, it may be the hollowing out of political debate in Israel. For much of the country’s history, the public has been split into two prevailing world views: those who stress historic rights—who see the Biblical Land of Israel as covering the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River—and those who believe in civil rights, arguing that the occupation of another people is not only unsustainable but unconscionable. The left reigned exclusively from 1948 until 1977; the right has ruled for most of the past four decades. But both camps used to have more or less equal numbers. Not anymore. Only eight per cent of Israeli Jews now define themselves as left wing; thirty-seven per cent identify with the right, and fifty-five per cent with the center. And just what “the center” means has changed, too: it is now considered a legitimate position to support the expulsion or transfer of Arabs from Israel. In fact, forty-eight per cent of Jewish Israelis support the idea, compared with forty-six per cent who don’t, according to a Pew Research poll from 2016.
But these statistics bely an even greater transformation that Israeli society has undergone during the Netanyahu years: a turning inward, against so-called “enemies from within.” The sense of solidarity that has characterized Israeli society since the founding of the state is fraying, while sectarianism, orchestrated by Netanyahu, is on the rise. The Palestinian question rarely features in the public discourse anymore. There is no talk of a two-state solution, because the consensus is that the status quo is going to reign. When Netanyahu began his first term in office, in 1996, there were a hundred and thirty-four thousand Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza; now, in the West Bank, there are about half a million. This mushrooming of the settlement project has made the drawing of a future Palestinian state with any cohesive borders a monumental challenge.
Netanyahu has remade Likud in his image—so much so that it is now unclear whether the Party can survive without him. “The day after Bibi, in Likud, an all-out war will break out,” Tal Shalev, a political reporter for the online news site Walla, told me. While no government minister has come out against Netanyahu, so far, many are said to be growing restless. Yet not a single Likud leader today is seen as Prime Minister material.
The only two figures who consistently score high in national opinion polls have both left Likud in recent years, reportedly feeling waylaid by Netanyahu. The first is Moshe Kahlon, a popular former communications minister who is single-handedly credited with breaking up Israel’s mobile-phone monopoly. Kahlon is now the head of a centrist party, Kulanu (“All of Us”), whose platform focuses primarily on bread-and-butter issues. Kulanu garnered ten seats in the last election, a moderate achievement, and Kahlon was appointed the finance minister. He is seen to be in no rush to topple the government. In many ways, he may be the last peg holding together Netanyahu’s Jenga tower of a coalition.
Gideon Sa’ar is the other well-regarded ex-Likudnik. Sa’ar finished first in the Likud primaries in both 2008 and 2012, but, when Netanyahu passed on giving him a serious ministerial portfolio after the 2015 election, he announced a “time out” from politics: “There is crazy hatred” between him and Netanyahu, Shalev told me. Sa’ar has been unequivocal about his intentions since. “My goal is to lead the country in the future,” he said last summer.
What would a government under these possible contenders look like? The difference, analysts say, would be one of shading, not of substance. If Netanyahu’s rule is characterized by a seizing of the base and then an appeal to the center, almost as an afterthought, some of his potential replacements—such as Kahlon—may attempt to rule from the center first and only then cater to the right. Still, with a majority of Knesset seats firmly in control of a right-wing bloc, the diplomatic stasis and the attempt to weaken Israel’s democratic institutions will likely continue apace. So will the process of hadata, or “religionisation,” in schools, universities, and the military.
“The question is how much the behaviour of the past year or two is setting up new norms, and that’s what I fear most,” Zeev Sternhell, a leading Israeli intellectual and scholar of fascism, told me. He pointed to two areas of particular concern: the attempt by the government to delegitimize the Supreme Court and a narrowing of the definition of democracy to include only the process of election and a protection of the rights of the majority. “Those two things have so embedded themselves into our society that they may be rooted as the new normal after Bibi.”
Israel’s Labor Party has seen better days. Its primaries tend to draw out the diminishing old guard of the Zionist left: weathered kibbutzniks, veteran union members, silver-haired academics. Last July, however, one candidate was in every way atypical. Avi Gabbay, the seventh child of immigrants from Morocco, is fifty-one, grew up in Israel’s impoverished transit camps and rose to become the C.E.O. of the telecommunications company Bezeq before joining Kahlon’s Kulanu Party, in 2014. Gabbay later stunned the political establishment—perhaps none more so than his mentor, Kahlon—by announcing his intention to switch parties and seek the Labor chairmanship. Kahlon has reportedly not spoken to him since.
In the Labor primary last year, Gabbay vanquished his opponents and turned his sights on Netanyahu in his acceptance speech. “If we stick to the old system of saying ‘Netanyahu isn’t good,’ and this, and that, and champagne bottles, we won’t beat him,’” Gabbay said.
After Gabbay’s surprise victory, he accepted an offer from Ayman Odeh, the leader an alliance of predominantly Arab parties known as the Joint List, to broker a phone call between Gabbay and Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority. “It was a good phone call,” Odeh told me. But then, about a month later, Gabbay’s public statements were much less conciliatory. “We won’t sit with the Joint List in the same government, period. We have nothing in common with them,” Gabbay told voters in southern Israel. A few days later, he told an interviewer that peace wouldn’t necessarily require uprooting any Jewish settlement. His statements hit dovish Israelis like a dagger. “A Labor Party leader who says it would be possible to have peace with the Palestinians without dismantling any settlements is either mocking himself and others, or is willfully lying,” Sternhell told me. “A serious man he is not.”
Such is the predicament of the left in Israel: Stick to your ideology and you wind up alienating most of the public; abandon it, and you risk losing your base. Immediately after Gabbay’s primary win, polls showed a small bump for Labor—narrowing the gap with Likud from six seats to four or five—but, by February, any advantage had disappeared. Labor is projected to secure fewer than fifteen seats in the next election, a thorough humiliation.
Yair Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, targets Israel’s swelling middle class—the same young urbanites who were part of the social-justice movement that took to the streets of Israel in 2011. Lapid’s base is aggrieved by what’s referred to in Israel as “the inequality of the burden.” They serve in the military and pay high taxes, while other sectors of society, especially ultra-Orthodox communities, are exempt from military service and are seen as living off the state.
Because of his good looks and charisma, the fifty-four-year-old Lapid has been dubbed by some the “Israeli Macron.” Like the French President, he has enjoyed an outsider status despite having served as finance minister. In 2013, Yesh Atid upended the political map by winning nineteen seats and becoming Israel’s second largest party. In 2015, it slipped down to eleven seats. Now, however, there is talk of the Party going all the way. Polls in January showed that, by uniting with Kahlon’s party and poaching a former I.D.F. chief of staff to run as a future defence minister, Lapid could beat Netanyahu. Without those partners, though, Netanyahu would prevail in a head-to-head contest.
As the head of a new party, Lapid is ideologically unburdened. He is a pragmatist, an adapter—or as some say, an opportunist. “Lapid has a political program that is very organized and its name is Yair Lapid,” Odeh told me.
I spoke to Lapid, by phone, in January. He had recently returned from a meeting of centrist politicians in the Netherlands and he clearly wished to position himself in line with moderation. “The real political fight is between populists and responsible leaders,” he told me. “After the tones in the American election, and after Brexit, the world wants responsible leadership.” The implication was that Netanyahu represented the other side—that of the irresponsible populists.
Yet Lapid is also aware that, in order to mount a real challenge against Netanyahu, he cannot afford to alienate the Prime Minister’s base. When I told him that there seemed to be a contradiction between his own growing popularity and Israelis’ professed drift rightward, he disagreed. “The terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ are becoming irrelevant,” he told me. “When people ask about my party, I say that we’re a national-liberal party. That defines us much more than left, right, or centre,” he added.
Press him for specifics on the Palestinian issue, however, and he grows vague. “Things need to be done,” he says, but “cautiously.” He also argued that regarding Syria and Iran there was no space between the country’s political parties. “On that issue, there is no internal debate in Israel,” he said. “So then the voters are divided not over what’s being stated but whether or not they believe the person making the statements.”
And that, in the end, may be as accurate a summary as any for where Israel is at as it enters its seventieth year. Israeli politics increasingly take place in the yawning gap between nice-sounding rhetoric and what is perceived to be a chaotic and volatile regional reality—always too chaotic and too volatile for meaningful negotiations to take place. Absent any diplomatic progress, the debate turns to domestic issues, and elections hinge on perceptions of the political system itself and the legitimacy of its democratic institutions. These are crucial issues, to be sure, but they are ones that shouldn’t be called into question in the first place in a liberal democracy.
It is an irony of no small proportions that Netanyahu may, in time, be viewed as the instigator of his own undoing: by neutering political debate in Israel, he has made the focus personal, drawing attention to the murky underside of his governing. Assuming that he will still be at the top of his party’s ticket, the next Israeli election will be less an open race than a referendum on his rule. There is a common saying in Israel: elections are not won; they are lost. With no term limits for Prime Ministers, power is seen as the incumbent’s to lose. This is all the more true these days, with a Prime Minister who has at least four open investigations aimed at him. Does it feel like the end of an era, I asked Lapid, toward the end of our conversation. “It does,” he said, then corrected himself. “It feels like the beginning of the end.”