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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Benjamin Netanyahu's ruthless instinct for political survival remains undimmed

The allegations against the Israeli Prime Minister continue to mount, but it is unlikely he will go quietly, writes Jonathan Cook

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the International Security Conference in Munich last week. Sven Hoppe/dpa via AP
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the International Security Conference in Munich last week. Sven Hoppe/dpa via AP

The recommendation by police to charge Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with two counts of bribery – there are more cases looming – marks a dangerous moment for Israel and the region.

For the past three decades, corruption scandals have swirled around a succession of Israeli leaders. Ehud Olmert, Mr Netanyahu’s predecessor, was forced to resign over suspicions he took cash in envelopes, and later ended up in jail. But Mr Netanyahu is the first to face the possibility of criminal corruption charges while in office.

This is new political terrain and Mr Netanyahu shows no signs of preparing to go quietly.

After 12 years at the head of various governments, Mr Netanyahu was on course to become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, beating even the record set by David Ben Gurion, the country’s founding father.

No one alive knows how to manipulate the levers of power in Israel better than Mr Netanyahu. And no one has a stronger and more ruthless instinct for political survival.

That has led to extreme arrogance. In late 2016, as his wife, Sara, was brought in for police questioning, the couple were still receiving from businessmen shipments of jewellery, luxury cigars and pink champagne whose value reached $280,000.

Mr Netanyahu is accused of offering many favours in return, in particular to Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan, a self-declared former Israeli spy and arms buyer. Those included efforts to change Israel’s tax laws, help Mr Milchan with TV interests and lobby on his behalf for a US residency visa.

Reportedly, the prime minister also tried to aid Mr Milchan and other investors by planning unsuccessfully a free-trade zone in the West Bank to build cheap cars and by participating in the murky dealings of a security firm.

In the second bribery case, Mr Netanyahu is on tape apparently offering Arnon Mozes, head of Israel’s most influential media group, legislation to damage a competitor in return for supportive coverage from his newspapers.

In another, as-yet unfinished investigation, Mr Netanyahu’s closest aides are suspected of receiving huge kickbacks from a deal with a German submarine manufacturer.

None of this has yet delivered a knockout blow, not least because members of the governing coalition fear moving against him.

These scandals have split Israeli society down the middle. While thousands have turned out to march against Mr Netanyahu, his core electorate is still behind him.

Rivals seen to be turning on the prime minister at this stage risk alienating the right-wing public, dooming their political future. Instead they are waiting to see whether Israel’s law chief, attorney general Avichai Mendelblit, agrees to put him on trial.

Mr Mendelblit is in no hurry. He is Mr Netanyahu’s appointee, and fears being seen toppling a popular government. He could take as long as a year to decide.

In the meantime, to bolster his position, Mr Netanyahu is already provoking a damaging confrontation at home and might yet engineer a regional crisis.

The first casualty is a further erosion of what is left of the threadbare rule of law in Israel. In a sign of desperation, Mr Netanyahu’s allies have attacked a former government minister, Yair Lapid – a potential centrist challenger – for testifying that the prime minister asked him to change the tax laws to help Mr Milchan.

They have publicly labelled him a “snitch”, as if senior politicians ought to lie to police investigators.

Meanwhile, rather than denying the findings, Mr Netanyahu has launched a frontal assault on the probity of the police and its commander, Roni Alsheikh, suggesting they are organising a politically motivated “coup”.

That is rich, given that Mr Alsheikh was parachuted into the post by Mr Netanyahu. And, as a former long-time resident of the Kiryat Arba, one of the most extreme settlements, Mr Alsheikh is firmly in the same ideological camp as Mr Netanyahu.

The latest attacks follow years of Mr Netanyahu’s coterie lashing out at every institution that threatens the right’s rule – from the media, courts and human rights organisations to the United Nations and Europe. All have been presented as “enemies of the people”.

But there are larger dangers. Mr Netanyahu’s legal troubles come as Israeli intelligence services have warned of potential crises on multiple fronts that need careful management.

In the south, the suffering in Gaza is pushing Palestinians there to the brink of endurance. Clashes escalated at the weekend, when Israel struck more than a dozen sites and left at least two Palestinians dead.

On the western flank, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is running out of credibility and options as Israel and Donald Trump’s administration deprive him of any realistic prospect of achieving statehood.

With the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, Iran, Russia and jihadists drawn into the fray in southern Syria, on Israel’s northern border, tensions could explode at any moment. That was powerfully illustrated this month when an Israeli war plane flying over Syria was shot down. Addressing the incident on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu told a security conference in Munich that Israel was ready to act “against Iran itself”.

And Mr Netanyahu is assumed to be meddling already behind the scenes with Mr Trump to tear up the nuclear accord with Iran.

The man deciding how to handle each of these inherently incendiary matters has crowned himself “King Bibi”, his wife “the First Lady”, and had been grooming his eldest, Yair, as heir – until Yair self-sabotaged by posting anti-semitic memes online.

All signs suggest Mr Netanyahu has a massively inflated ego and an insatiable sense of entitlement. Where it might push him in a time of profound and prolonged personal crisis should worry us all.