The Fall of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Future of Israel; If a Series of Corruption Scandals Force Benjamin Netanyahu out of Office, He Will Leave Behind a Country That Is Deeply, Perhaps Irreparably, Divided

By Carlstrom, Gregg | Newsweek, March 23, 2018 | Go to article overview

The Fall of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Future of Israel; If a Series of Corruption Scandals Force Benjamin Netanyahu out of Office, He Will Leave Behind a Country That Is Deeply, Perhaps Irreparably, Divided


Carlstrom, Gregg, Newsweek


Byline: Gregg Carlstrom

When Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington earlier this month, it should have been a political triumph, a moment of exultation. For most of his 12 years in power, the hawkish Israeli prime minister was forced to work with presidents who despised him, left-leaning Democrats who talked about settlements and Palestinian statehood. Now, he has Donald Trump. Their March 5 meeting at the White House was the first since the U.S. announced plans to relocate the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem this spring. Israeli politicians had long demanded the move; Netanyahu was the one to deliver it. Ever the flatterer, he compared Trump to Cyrus, the Persian ruler who freed his Jewish subjects 2,500 years ago and let them return to Jerusalem. From there, it was off to the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, where Netanyahu and his wife were greeted with standing ovations, a warmer welcome than anything he would find back home.

And yet the whole trip was spoiled from the start. Hours before Netanyahu met with Trump, Israelis learned that one of the prime minister's closest advisers had turned against him. Nir Hefetz, a former journalist, has been described as "Netanyahu's spin doctor," the man responsible for massaging press coverage of the first couple. But after Hefetz's arrest in February, he agreed to turn state's evidence and hand over recordings of the Netanyahus discussing an alleged criminal conspiracy. He is the third confidante of the prime minister known to have cooperated with the authorities in recent months.

Netanyahu acted as if nothing was wrong. He is, after all, Israel's second-longest-serving prime minister. He has survived police investigations before, as far back as his first term, in the 1990s. "There will be nothing because there is nothing," he has said, dismissing the latest spates of corruption probes. And critics have made a career of underestimating him. Before the last election, in 2015, Israelis were convinced Netanyahu was finished. The vote would hinge on the economy, they predicted, and the prime minister had little to offer (he didn't even bother releasing an economic program). He won anyway, in decisive fashion.

Yet even his allies are starting to whisper that this jubilant visit to Washington was his last. After years of investigations, the police are closing in; the cases against him grow more substantive by the day. The attorney general will decide in the coming months whether to indict him on a slew of charges, which range from comically absurd to deathly serious. The man Time once dubbed "King Bibi" has lorded over Israel's political scene for 10 years and planned to stay for many more. Now, suddenly, he seems vulnerable.

His address to AIPAC was his usual stump speech. He talked about Israel's security, its burgeoning diplomatic ties in previously unfriendly parts of the world, its enviable high-tech industry. These are undeniable achievements, but they are not Netanyahu's real legacy. When he goes--and it now seems a question of when, rather than if--he will leave behind a country that is deeply, perhaps irreparably, divided.

This division is not entirely his fault. Demographic and cultural changes--from the rapid growth of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish population to the hawkishness of a younger generation raised during the second intifada, the violent Palestinian uprising--play a major role. But he has undeniably sped up the process. He allows the Haredim (the Hebrew word for ultra-Orthodox Jews) to dictate policy on everything from railroad construction to prayer arrangements at the Western Wall. He has largely remained silent about the wild, right-wing incitement aimed at the president and the army. Rather than push back against the racist and nationalist fringes in his coalition, Netanyahu empowers them. The final act of his 2015 campaign, for example, was an Election Day warning that "the Arabs are coming to the polls in droves. …

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