In a fiery Hanukkah speech to his fellow Likud party stalwarts a year ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the Israeli left for the corruption investigations engulfing him, saying that because his opponents could not defeat him at the ballot box, “they tried to beat us with slander.”
On Sunday, he addressed the same audience on the same holiday in the same place on the same subject, but the target of his ire was not the Israeli left. It was the outgoing Israeli police chief, his own appointee, who oversaw the investigations that have resulted in three recommendations that Netanyahu be indicted on bribery and fraud charges.
He is still playing the victim. But if his legal troubles spell the end of his storied career — and no one is writing him off yet — the evidence uncovered by the police suggests that Netanyahu will have only himself to blame.
For a decade now, Netanyahu has led Israel like no other leader since David Ben-Gurion, personifying and championing the country on the world stage, dominating Israelis’ self-perception, eclipsing and marginalizing opponents and right-wing rivals alike, and steadily remaking its politics in his image.
Yet throughout his political life, his detractors have discerned in Netanyahu an unseemly obsession with his public image, even for a politician. And his present troubles arose out of what amounted to his most audacious attempt to gain control over that image: a long-term offensive on the news media itself.
For a prime minister who sees himself as a historic figure — protecting Israel against Iran’s regional ambitions, providing Jews the world over with a haven from anti-Semitism — the prospect that he could be brought low by self-regard is practically Shakespearean, said Dan Shadur, the director of the new documentary “King Bibi: The Life and Performances of Benjamin Netanyahu.”
“He’s so obsessed with his reputation that it’s actually threatening his rule,” Shadur said.
The drama began in 2007 with the launch of Israel Hayom, a free daily newspaper financed by the U.S. casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a devoted supporter of Netanyahu’s. It was mocked as “Bibiton,” a portmanteau of Netanyahu’s nickname, Bibi, and the Hebrew word for newspaper. But its wide readership and cheap advertising rates quickly weakened rival papers.
It was so slavish a promoter of Netanyahu’s interests that by 2014, a majority of Israeli lawmakers — including key members of his governing coalition — backed legislation that would have forced Israel Hayom to charge its readers at least half the price of its cheapest competitor.
Netanyahu broke up his government rather than let that bill become law, he later asserted. But in forming a new, more staunchly right-wing, coalition after his 2015 re-election, he insisted that he be given control over the Communications Ministry, Israel’s version of the Federal Communications Commission.
He immediately fired the ministry’s director-general and installed a trusted aide, Shlomo Filber, to do his bidding. And he sought to expand the number of television networks in Israel, ostensibly to promote competition and the marketplace of ideas. But in a country of only 9 million people, critics observed, that would also have the effect of slicing up an already tiny advertising pie, weakening the television newsrooms that routinely gave him fits.
Netanyahu was eventually forced to give up the Communications Ministry. But his tireless efforts to defang negative coverage of him led directly to two of the corruption cases against him. In one, he was recorded bargaining with the publisher of the leading newspaper Yediot Ahronot, whose coverage of him was aggressive and critical, but which was suffering financially from Israel Hayom’s growth: If Yediot would ease up on him, Netanyahu would use his influence with Adelson to get Israel Hayom to limit its circulation.
That deal was never consummated, but another one was, the police say: Not long after taking control of the Communications Ministry, Netanyahu and Filber rammed through, over lower-level officials’ objections, approval for a merger of the country’s biggest telecom and a satellite television network called Yes. The merger was enormously lucrative to the companies’ controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch.
In return, according to the police and the website’s journalists, Netanyahu would receive fawning coverage on Elovitch’s news site, Walla. From that point on, Walla killed embarrassing news articles and splashed flattering photographs of his wife across articles about her that held little news value.
Filber is now a prosecution witness, as is Nir Hefetz, the public-relations adviser who is said to have relayed Netanyahu’s demands to Walla’s editors. Ari Harow, the prime minister’s former chief of staff, recorded Netanyahu’s phone calls with the publisher of Yediot Ahronot, which later ended up in investigators’ hands.
But Netanyahu, a consummate political survivor, is not going anywhere just yet. It is up to his attorney general, whom he appointed, to decide whether to indict him on any of the three cases brought by the police. That decision could take months.
And despite the scandals, he remains in a strong spot politically.
For one thing, his would-be successors mostly look small by comparison. The left and centrist parties keep trying to recruit former generals — the latest is Benny Gantz, a former military chief of staff — to help them look tough enough on national security to match Netanyahu’s standing on his trademark issue.
For another, Netanyahu remains enormously popular with his political base, a powerful obstacle, if not a deterrent, to prosecutors in a country where a sitting prime minister has never been indicted, said Nahum Barnea, the veteran columnist for Yediot Ahronot. Barnea recalled that when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was the target of a criminal investigation, “he was so unpopular, it was almost a remedy for the people that they found evidence against him.
“Here, you have a strong prime minister,” Barnea said. “He’s either supported by or accepted as a fact of life for so many people, they’re not enthusiastic to see him fall.”
Netanyahu also possesses unmatched political agility.
He made short work of two ambitious young politicians to his right, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, when they threatened to bring down his government over his handling of recurring clashes with the Gaza Strip last month, delivering a forceful televised speech in which he warned that Israel’s security situation was too delicate for petty political infighting. The two ministers backed down overnight, bolstering Netanyahu’s argument that he remained Israel’s indispensable protector.
“He looks now like the only person whose head fits the crown,” Barnea said.
So unless he is indicted and convicted, his coalition falters or he chooses to step down, he will remain in office at least until an election sometime next year, and even then defeating him would be a tall order.
That said, one of Netanyahu’s greatest gifts, and most successful political strategies, may be portraying himself as a victim. He used it to win leadership of Likud in 1993, when he went public with a bizarre and never proven claim that he was being blackmailed with a supposed sex tape from an extramarital affair.
He used it to defend himself when the left accused him of having incited the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. “It was perceived as the whole right wing was being attacked,” said Shadur, the filmmaker.
Israelis love a good victim, and his base, in particular, nursed ethnic and class resentments that Netanyahu has stirred adroitly and consistently over the years. Long before working-class whites fell in behind President Donald Trump, anti-elitist voters outside Israel’s big cities were cheering Netanyahu’s hard line against the Oslo peace process and his visceral campaign slogans like “Bibi is good for the Jews.”
It worked again in 2015, when Netanyahu came from behind to win re-election by warning conservative Jewish voters that “Arabs are coming to the polls in droves.”
The question now is whether it will work again if Netanyahu is charged with bribery and the accusers are his own former right-hand men, the prosecution is led by an attorney general he appointed, and the evidence against him is the work of a right-wing former police chief whom Netanyahu also named to the job.