Benjamin Netanyahu, serving his fourth term since first being elected prime minister in 1996, is on course to set an Israeli record for political longevity. If he’s still managing Israel’s affairs of state in July 2019, he will surpass David Ben-Gurion in terms of time served in this position.
Netanyahu also may be cruising toward another record, one that would irretrievably tarnish his reputation, such as it is.
On February 13, the Israeli police recommended that he be charged with fraud, bribery and breach of trust. If Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit acts on these recommendations and brings charges against him, Netanyahu would be the first sitting Israeli premier to be formally charged with committing felonies. He would then face the prospect of a prison sentence, a humiliating turn of events for a man who has presided over Israel’s fortunes for 12 years now.
In 2008, Ehud Olmert — one of Netanyahu’s predecessors — resigned a week after the police announced he would be charged with breach of trust, bribery, fraudulent receipt of goods and money laundering. Sentenced to 27 months in prison, he was released last year after serving 19 months.
Netanyahu, too, should step down, saving the country considerable anguish. Given all its problems, foreign and domestic, Israel does not need this kind of a distraction.
Speaking on television just hours before the police recommendations were officially released, Netanyahu declared, “You know I do everything with only one thing in mind — the good of the country. Only for the good of the state. Nothing has made me deviate, or will make me deviate, from this sacred mission.”
If he really means it, he will do the right thing and step aside.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and claims that the police report is “slanted, “extreme,” “full of holes” and “holds no water.” This has yet to be determined. But according to Mandelblit, Netanyahu’s former cabinet secretary, the report is “thorough” and “professional.”
Police investigators spent about a year compiling the evidence, and one can only assume they exercised the greatest of care, deliberation and caution before handing down their weighty verdict. After all, the laying of charges against a prime minister is no small matter.
Netanyahu’s supporters believe he’s being subjected to a witch hunt. This is mere rhetoric and conjecture. One of the key witnesses against Netanyahu was none other than Yair Lapid, his former finance minister and the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid Party.
In what has been dubbed Case 1,000, Netanyahu accepted almost $300,000 in gifts — top-of-the-line cigars, champagne and jewelry — over a decade from two businessmen, the Israeli-born Hollywood movie mogul Arnon Milchan and the Australian casino king James Packer. In exchange for Milchan’s largesse, Netanyahu tried to ram through legislation that could have been of immense financial value to him. As for Packer, he apparently stood to gain permanent residency status and tax privileges in Israel.
In Case 2,000, Netanyahu and newspaper magnate Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the daily Yediot Aharonot, reached a “barter” agreement to advance their respective interests. In return for positive coverage in Mozes’ mass-circulation tabloid, Netanyahu would cut Israel Hayom, a free newspaper, down to size. Interestingly enough, its proprietor is Sheldon Adelson, one of Netanyahu’s most prominent and well-heeled American supporters.
Despite the serious nature of the charges, Netanyahu seems determined to carry on as if no police charges were ever laid. “I feel a deep obligation to continue to lead Israel in a way that will ensure our future,” he said in his speech defending himself. In a reference to his Likud Party, he added, “We will continue to work together with you for the citizens of the States of Israel, until the end of our term.”
Netanyahu should not assume he’s indispensable. No one is. There are no shortage of competent ministers in his cabinet who could fill his shoes with ease and perhaps even élan.
Netanyahu owes it to the people of Israel to recuse himself until this matter is definitively settled.