To survive scandals, Netanyahu relies on mantra: no one else can lead Israel

Netanyahu vows to stay in office even if, as police recommend, he is indicted. His critics say that would be damaging to Israel's democracy. But for his supporters, the long-serving premier has delivered security and prosperity, so what harm is a little corruption?

Gali Tibbon/AP
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Sunday Feb. 25, 2018.

Political operative Tzion Bouskila says his phone has been ringing lately with calls from Israeli Cabinet ministers and lawmakers from Likud, Israel’s ruling party.

They’re anxious, he says, to know how news of mounting corruption scandals involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is playing in his working-class town of Netivot, a long-time party stronghold.

“They want to know what the pulse is on the street,” says Mr. Bouskila, who heads the Likud party’s branch there. “And I tell them support just keeps rising and rising … and they themselves should support Netanyahu with all their might.”

So far they seem to be listening, remaining loyal to Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s master political survivor, despite the most serious challenge yet to his four terms in power.

As Israelis await the attorney general’s decision on possible corruption indictments, Netanyahu has vowed to stay in office regardless. It’s a sign, his critics argue, that he is disregarding democratic norms and that his lasting imprint on the country could be how he oversaw the erosion of the country’s core democratic institutions.

But for his followers, it’s a promise that he will continue to deliver the prosperity and security they say he has proved he can provide. He is currently in reach of becoming Israel’s longest-serving prime minister – surpassing even the country’s first, David Ben-Gurion.

“I feel a deep obligation to continue to lead Israel in a way that will ensure our future,” Netanyahu said on live television, his eyes focused on the camera, just minutes before the police announced their recommendation to indict him in two separate cases of alleged bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

Since then, more charges have surfaced, and a top aide has agreed to turn state’s witness in a potentially more significant case that alleges Netanyahu used his power to trade favors in exchange for positive media coverage.

Throughout, Netanyahu has criticized the police, casting doubt on their true motivations, and has portrayed attacks against him as unpatriotic, even undermining Israel itself.

His critics, meanwhile, describe the corruption allegations, in particular those related to possible meddling with media coverage of him, as the most insidious evidence that Netanyahu is a leader bent on quashing dissent and destroying Israeli democracy.

Standing by their champion

In his previous role as attorney general, Supreme Court Justice Menachem Mazuz indicted Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert for corruption. In remarks about the current scandals that were recorded and leaked, the justice said he was distressed that Israeli leaders are not setting an appropriate personal example, which has led to a “leadership crisis.”

Nevertheless, recent polls show, Bouskila and his fellow Likud faithful, who constitute some 25 percent of the electorate, continue to stand by Netanyahu – enough to keep in him office should new elections be called. The core of Likud is largely drawn from towns that are predominately Sephardic, religious, and staunchly anti-establishment. And even though Netanyahu arguably is a member ofthe elite himself, his loyalists still see him as a champion of the underdog.

“Netanyahu has learned how to use his base to devastating effect by learning how to build a coalition around it,” argues Anshel Pfeffer, author of the upcoming book, “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.”

“Netanyahu’s genius and fortune is that Israel is very divided between many parties and there is no other challenger who can form a coalition,” he says. “Netanyahu is not popular, but he is the only person who can operate in this landscape.”

Mr. Pfeffer says part of Netanyahu’s tactical brilliance politically has been to appoint coalition partners – not members of his own party – to the most powerful Cabinet posts. That makes those partners less likely to bolt when times get tough, a bet that has paid off now as his Cabinet has rallied, offering a solid wall of support.

Members of his own party, meanwhile, argue that there are still no indictments, and that it’s the partisan media and the left who are conspiring to overthrow someone they see as the only figure capable of leading their embattled and complicated country.

No successor has been groomed

This is precisely the message Netanyahu has pushed for years, as he has crafted an image in the same media he is now accused of trading favors with to get positive coverage.

By design, analysts say, no successors have been groomed or are even waiting in the wings within the Likud. Bouskila is filled with adulation.

“Look at how well the economy is doing, other countries would love to have our growth rate,” he says, “it’s good for businesspeople, industry and regular people. Look at our security and diplomatic situation – among the best we have ever had.

“And there’s something about his personality, he travels the world and commands respect. And have we ever had an American president with such a strong connection to Israel?” Bouskilla asks, citing President Trump’s cozy ties with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has his hands full fighting four corruption cases simultaneously. For months headlines focused on the cases of pink champagne and cigars that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, received in exchange for allegedly helping the business interests of two wealthy friends.

But it is the media-related case, for which police also have recommended an indictment, and a further related one that may prove most damaging. Both center on the alleged peddling of business favors for the owners of influential news outlets in exchange for positive coverage.

In one, Netanyahu has been heard on tape telling the owner of Yedioth Ahronoth, once the most widely read newspaper in the country, that he would convince American billionaire Sheldon Adelson to reduce the circulation of his own Israel Ha’Yom – a pro-Netanyahu free daily that is now the most widely read. The alleged payback for Netanyahu was kinder coverage, and for Yedioth, a boost in sales.

The right-left divide

Still, Netanyahu has already established a dominant image. Dahlia Scheindlin, a pollster and political strategist, says that in focus groups she often hears the same refrain, even from those who do not support him: “There is no one else.”

“They say he is a strong leader, that there is no one else of his leadership stature,” says Ms. Scheindlin. “That he stands up for their interests, looks like a tough guy, talks tough. They like it when he stands up to the world.”

She and fellow pollster Mitchell Barak argue that because the corruption Netanyahu is accused of is not a classic story of piles of money, but instead revolves around complicated infractions, it is harder to anger his base.

“Supporters … cannot look at him and say ‘I hate you – you stole my money.’ They see him as a wheeler and dealer doing what it takes to stay in power.” Because they share his policy goals, “they don’t have a big incentive to push him out,” Scheindlin argues.

That mindset is likely further exacerbated by the right-left divide here.

Mr. Barak, who worked for Netanyahu in the early 1990s when he was deputy foreign minister, says his supporters can be explained simply:

“At the end of the day Israelis vote on one issue, and that is on the security/peace issue. If you are right of center, it’s security, and you want someone who will protect and defend Israel, and minimize terror attacks, and fight for defensible borders. And from that point of view Netanyahu is delivering the goods, so who cares about a little corruption?”

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