The Netanyahu paradox: Guarding Israel from enemies without, causing harm within

Focus switched instantly Tuesday from PM’s corruption woes to Hezbollah tunnels. On security, he retains Israelis’ trust, which makes his attacks on the police even more troubling

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Then-police commissioner Roni Alsheich (left) and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a welcoming ceremony for Alsheich at the start of his term, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, December 3, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Then-police commissioner Roni Alsheich (left) and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a welcoming ceremony for Alsheich at the start of his term, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, December 3, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Attention in Israel swiftly shifted on Tuesday from the allegations of corruption against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his attack on the police who recommend he be put on trial — the big, big news of the past two days — to the launch on the northern border of a major IDF operation neutralizing tunnels dug by Hezbollah into Israeli territory.

But not all the attention.

Netanyahu’s critics — including some, speaking off the record, from within the coalition — intimated that the two dramas were related: that Netanyahu had neatly timed the army action to distract attention from his legal woes. His defenders, needless to say, dismissed such cynical theorizing, stressing that the military action was vital, and vital right now — a narrative underpinned by the simple fact that the IDF did not gear up for it in a couple of days; this is a complex and carefully planned operation.

Omer Barlev, a Zionist Union Knesset member who heads a parliamentary panel overseeing Israel’s preparedness for war, said he had no doubt that the IDF’s “Northern Shield” operation was urgent and necessary. In contrast to the IDF’s spokespeople, moreover, who have been insisting that the Hezbollah tunnels were “non-operational” at this stage, Barlev said in a radio interview that since the tunnels extend into Israel, they are by definition “operational” and thus that sealing them is an immediate imperative.

In this photo released by Hezbollah Central Military Media, Israeli military diggers work on the Lebanese-Israeli border next to a wall that was built by Israel facing the southern village of Kafr Kila, Lebanon on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018. The Israeli military launched an operation to “expose and thwart” tunnels it says were built by the Hezbollah terror group that stretch from Lebanon into northern Israel. (Hezbollah Military Media via AP)

Nonetheless, Barlev, a former commander of Israel’s elite Sayeret Matkal special forces unit, sounded a note of skepticism as regards the prime minister’s framing of the operation. He didn’t link the timing to the prime minister’s corruption woes. But he argued that the need to tackle Hezbollah’s “terror tunnels” constituted no justification for Netanyahu’s disinclination to carry out a major offensive against Hamas in Gaza last month.

This was in response to assertions, including by Netanyahu’s Likud colleague Yoav Kisch, that it was because the military had to focus urgently on Hezbollah that the prime minister decided on restraint in the face of 500-plus Hamas rockets, and that his wise stewardship and prioritizing stood in stark contrast to the lack of responsibility shown by Avigdor Liberman, who walked out as defense minister in disgust at Netanyahu’s ostensibly soft approach to Hamas.

Zionist Union MK Omer Barlev holds a press conference at the Knesset on November 30, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The IDF, Barlev argued, is entirely capable of protecting the south and the north of Israel simultaneously. All manner of unnamed “political sources” were feeding the same line to Hebrew media through Tuesday: Yes, it was emphatically necessary to tackle the Hezbollah tunnels, but it was necessary a month ago as well.

The IDF operation is expected to continue for days, maybe even weeks, the Army spokesman, Ronen Manelis, said. And there’s no telling, at this time of writing, how or whether Hezbollah may choose to respond.

Undermining trust

Sooner or later, however, Netanyahu’s legal complications will again take center stage — illustrating the paradox that his prime ministership has become.

Netanyahu remains Israelis’ preferred choice for prime minister, and the IDF’s northern border operation is likely only to underline that preference, because he is perceived as more capable than his rivals of keeping this country safe — of fending off our enemies without. But simultaneously, in his strategy for countering the bribery and related allegations against him, he deliberately foments division within, by undermining Israelis’ confidence in law enforcement and by challenging the rule of law.

While the IDF sets about tackling dangers on the northern front, on the corruption front, things do not look good for Netanyahu.

The police force, headed by a commissioner he chose, has now recommended that he be charged in three separate corruption cases — most recently, this week, for alleged bribe-taking and other offenses relating to his interactions with the former controlling shareholder in Israel’s Bezeq telecommunications giant. That last of these three recommendations was the parting gift of commissioner Roni Alsheich, and it was released on Alsheich’s final full day in office — the final day of a three-year term that Netanyahu emphatically chose not to extend for the customary fourth year.

The state prosecution, headed by an attorney general he appointed, has been overseeing the extensive investigations, which were only initiated with the direct approval of that attorney general. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Avichai Mandelblit’s hierarchy was unsurprised by the specific charges recommended by police in the Bezeq affair, and that Mandelblit’s various deputies share the police assessment that there are indeed cases to answer in the other two investigations as well.

Yet it would be foolish, and pointless, to express any certainties about how the legal process will play out. It is Mandelblit, the country’s top legal officer, not his deputies and certainly not the police, who has to decide whether to file charges.

Back in 2004, things didn’t look good for prime minister Ariel Sharon either. The state attorney had actually begun drafting an indictment against him over the so-called Greek Island affair. But the attorney general of the day, Menachem Mazuz, closed the case with the brusque conclusion that “the evidence does not even come close” to the level required for a conviction.

Perhaps Mandelblit will be persuaded by Netanyahu’s claims that all those cigars from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan were mere gifts from a friend (Case 1000). That every reader in Israel can see in each day’s Netanyahu-bashing edition of Yedioth Ahronoth that no deal was hatched by the PM and that newspaper’s publisher Arnon Mozes to secure him more favorable coverage (Case 2000). That he made no illicit interventions to help the business interests of Bezeq’s Elovitch, and that there is nothing wrong in a prime minister, or his wife, seeking to persuade the operator of a news website (Elovitch’s Walla) to go a little easier on them (Case 4000).

Perhaps. The police emphatically concluded that his actions were illegal. But perhaps.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud party event in Ramat Gan, marking the first night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, on December 2, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

What is sadly unarguable, however, is that in his fierce and bitter public defense against the mounting catalog of allegations against him, Netanyahu is discrediting his office. A prime minister who has marshaled such careful judgment in keeping Israel relatively safe over the past decade in this treacherous and unpredictable region is acting cynically and irresponsibly with respect to Israel’s internal well-being. Seeking desperately to retain maximal public support, he is framing his legal entanglements as a matter of us against them — when the “them” is not only the leftist opposition and the Bolshevik media, but also the skewed police force, with its ostensibly impure motives and its unfit commissioner. And by implicit extension, “them” is also the Mandelblit-headed state prosecution overseeing the case.

On the first night of Hanukkah, hours after Alsheich had dropped the bombshell recommendation in Case 4000, Netanyahu was scheduled to address a Likud gathering to mark the festival of lights. He could have taken the appropriately enlightened route, the statesmanlike route. Bad enough that his Likud colleagues were castigating the cops and lawyers; he could have assured Israelis that he had confidence in the integrity of our country’s law enforcement, and done so while simultaneously proclaiming his innocence.

Instead, he used the speech — as he has done at previous low points in his battle against the corruption allegations — to claim that he and his wife Sara are victims of a “witch hunt,” that the police investigators are dishonest, that the case was “a lost cause from the start.”

The question of who will succeed Alsheich is currently mired in a whole separate slew of complications, and Netanyahu told the crowd he didn’t know who the new top cop would be. But “I do know one thing,” the prime minister declared, leaning on the podium in that easy way of his, vouchsafing information to the adoring audience: “He’ll have some serious restoration work because, how should I say this, the public’s trust in the police is not at an all-time high.”

Indeed, it is not. And no thanks to the prime minister.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a State Control Committee meeting in the Knesset on December 3, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

It was dismal to see Mandelblit forced to declare on Monday that “I support the police and give them all my backing… The police aren’t persecuting anyone, the state prosecution isn’t persecuting anyone, and judicial officials don’t seek to govern or to persecute… The only thing we pursue is justice and the rule of law.” How wretched that he was defending the trustworthiness of Israel’s law enforcement in the face of withering criticism by Israel’s prime minister.

Don’t bet against him, but…

Netanyahu continues to exude confidence. When a supporter called out some encouragement to him during his Sunday night speech, the prime minister smiled and responded: “I’m not afraid, and thanks for the support, but I’m strong.”

Strong indeed. And head and shoulders above his rivals as a political leader. Last month, he easily slipped away from the bid by his hawkish detractors Liberman and Naftali Bennett to drag him off to early elections as a PM hesitant in the face of Hamas terrorism. Watching the way he turned that Gaza crisis around, dwarfing his rivals in a nine-minute address to the nation, and watching as the nation turned its focus Tuesday from Netanyahu the alleged criminal to Netanyahu the steady hand helming Israel’s defense, it would be foolish, again, to bet against him winning the elections when they do arrive, some time next year.

Richard Nixon says goodbye to members of his staff outside the White House in Washington as he boards a helicopter for Andrews Air Force Base after resigning the Presidency. August 9, 1974. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty, File)

Come the day, Netanyahu will be asking the public to buy into his “witch hunt” narrative, or at least put aside the allegations against him, and reelect him because of his track record in protecting the country from its enemies. And the opposition, which will include his own former Likud defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, will be asking the public to oust him because he’s battering Israel’s democracy, because he’s a potent danger within.

Don’t bet against him.

But don’t discount, either, a rather Nixon-esque scenario.

Paranoid and fearful that he might not win reelection, Richard Nixon resorted to illegal behavior to gain advantage over his rivals. Despite the mounting evidence against him, he won reelection — demonstrating, ironically, that he’d had no need to resort to the illegality in the first place. Sounds familiar? And then it all caught up with him.

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