The Moves of a Desperate Man

Ronen Zvulun/Pool Photo via AP

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem

There are two ways to read the way Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party are acting. The first is that they are doing all they can to keep Netanyahu in office as prime minister of Israel, despite the corruption allegations against him. The second is that they are doing all they can to show that Netanyahu is guilty and politically doomed.

Both readings are correct.

Not that Netanyahu is intentionally pleading guilty in the court of domestic public opinion. It just seems that way when you try to intimidate the national police chief, even as your party tries to legislate the end of the investigations against you. Or, failing that, tries to legislate a long enough postponement of an indictment for you to run for reelection before you're charged.

None of this tells us how the Netanyahu drama will play out, or when it will end. It does show that he's very afraid.

For those just tuning in now, a recap of previous episodes: For many months, Netanyahu has been under investigation in at least two corruption cases. In one, he and his family are suspected of receiving gifts, including crates of pink champagne (for his wife), expensive cigars (for him) and a ski vacation (for his son) from extremely wealthy businessmen in return for government favors.

In the other, it's alleged that he negotiated a deal with the owner of Yediot Aharonot, one of Israel's two largest newspapers: In return for soft cuddly coverage, Netanyahu would act to reduce the circulation of the rival paper—owned by Sheldon Adelson, the American conservative mega-funder and Netanyahu patron. Adelson has reportedly given testimony to Israeli police that bolsters the case against Netanyahu, even while his freebie paper continues to read like it is dictated from the prime minister's office. Adelson is apparently at the “frenemies” stage in the standard progression followed by Netanyahu supporters on their way to being his opponents.

(Besides that, Netanyahu's personal lawyer is under investigation in bribery allegations connected to Israel buying submarines from Germany. Meanwhile, the attorney general has announced that he's planning to indict the prime minister's wife, Sara Netanyahu, for fraudulently charging about $100,000 for private dinner parties to the government. That story contains a small victory for the prime minister, since he escaped prosecution.)

In August, Netanyahu's ex-chief of staff, Ari Harow, signed an agreement to be a state's witness against in both of the investigations against him. Besides Harrow's memory, the investigators have the memory of his cellphone, on which he reportedly recorded Netanyahu's dickering with the owner of Yediot.

But then it was the end of summer, when little moves in Israel, and then it was the fall Jewish holidays, when the answer to every question is “after the holidays.”

The holidays have ended. The police would like to interrogate the prime minister. They have before, but new evidence has created lots of new questions. Since he runs the country, they've tried politely scheduling an appointment. He hasn't found time.

But when Israel's Channel 2 TV news reported the planned interrogation, Netanyahu did find time to write a Facebook post attacking the chief of the national police force, Roni Alsheikh. Netanyahu held Alsheikh responsible for a supposed “tsunami” of leaks from the investigations. He also blasted Alsheikh for maintaining the police practice of completing investigations with a formal recommendation to prosecutors on whether to indict.

Let's zoom in: The police recommendation in a case like Netanyahu's would be public. It would lay out a great deal of the case against him. Some estimates are that it could be ready in just a few months. After that, the attorney general and top prosecutors are likely to study the case for months, deciding if the suggested indictment will hold up in court. Eliminating the police recommendation would give Netanyahu months of breathing space and hope that prosecutors would scale down or decide against an indictment.

Alsheikh was Netanyahu's personal choice for police chief two years ago. The attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, was previously Netanyahu's cabinet secretary. It may be a tad cynical to suggest that Netanyahu expected them to protect him.

Being a tad cynical is appropriate here. In his Facebook rant, Netanyahu linked Alsheikh to a “transparent media witch hunt” against him.

The fairly explicit message was that he wants Alsheikh to keep the investigation out of the news (unrealistic, since too many people in the police and outside know too much) and to skip the recommendation. The implicit message is a warning to Mandelblit that he, too, could be labeled as a member of the vast conspiracy against the choice of true patriots for prime minister.

Netanyahu did not count on intimidation alone. By the time parliament went back into session this week, his closest Likud allies were pushing legislation that would ban police investigations of the prime minister.

Here they ran into objections from the junior partners in the ruling coalition. By the middle of this week, the prime minister's cronies had a new proposal: a law that would bar the police from recommending indictments.

The apparent plan is this: The coalition partners will have to swallow the new bill as a compromise. Netanyahu will then look for a good pretext for snap elections before prosecutors make up their mind. He'll be under suspicion, but not under indictment. The details of the case would be blurry. Anything leaked to the press could be dismissed as a fabrication of the media conspiracy, another reason for the base to rally round Netanyahu.

And if re-elected and still indicted? That's far off. Enough time to come up with a new plan. Or so Netanyahu seems to think, or hope, or desperately want to believe.

The catch is the multiparty system. Inside the Likud, Netanyahu has a free hand. But his coalition includes two parties of the hard right and another of the center-right, all led by former allies.

Each would like to pick up votes at the Likud's expense. Each wants to stay in government a little longer, to rack up some achievements to show the voters. Each fears that staying with Netanyahu too long could stain the right as a whole. They are looking for the perfect moment to cut loose.

Put differently, Netanyahu has none of the protections of the rigid American system. A coalition can come up apart at any moment.

Netanyahu is not yet finished. But he is scared, and flailing, and behaving like a man who would do anything to keep the evidence and the law from catching up with him.

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