Unshaken by police recommendations, it’s almost business as usual for Netanyahu

As long as his coalition partners don’t change their minds and bolt, cops’ call for indictment unlikely to dent, much less end, PM’s leadership

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laughs during a conference at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos,  on January 21, 2016. (AFP/FABRICE COFFRINI)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laughs during a conference at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, on January 21, 2016. (AFP/FABRICE COFFRINI)

Dismissing the damning police statement recommending he be tried on two counts of bribery and breach of trust, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday evening made plain that, for him, it’s more or less business as usual.

And he might be right, at least for the foreseeable future.

In a statement given outside his residence, minutes before the police published its recommendations in Cases 1000 and 2000, Netanyahu once again denied any wrongdoing, predicting that the legal authorities will close the case without an indictment, and that he will continue to lead Israel for years to come.

His public schedule for the remainder of the week — a conference on local government in Tel Aviv, and a high-profile security conference in Munich — was issued by his office hours after the police announcement, underlining the ostensible nonchalance. However, he had cancelled parts of his schedule earlier in the day, to work on his response to the recommendations.

“Our government will conclude its term,” Netanyahu declared confidently on Tuesday evening in his 13-minute, televised reaction.

“Together with all ministers, we will continue to turn Israel into an ascending world power, to a technological, military, economic superpower that has received international standing such as we have never had before. I will continue to lead the State of Israel with responsibility and loyalty, as long as you, the citizens of Israel, elect me to lead you.”

The truth will come to light, Netanyahu went on, asking the public to vote for him in the next elections, which, he vowed, will take place on their set date — November 5, 2019 — and not a day before.

For the time being, it indeed seems likely that Netanyahu’s coalition will not fall apart, and that he will continue to govern — at least until Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decides whether to heed the police recommendations or close the case.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with his former cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, right, now the attorney general, during the weekly government conference in Jerusalem, on December 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It is far too early to hazard a guess as to what Mandelblit — Netanyahu’s former cabinet secretary, who was appointed to his current post by none other than the prime minister — will decide.

Some analysts expect the attorney general will take at least several months, perhaps even up to a year, before making a final decision (though starting Tuesday night, politicians from the opposition have begun calling on him to speed up the process).

Moreover, judging by previous statements by the heads of parties in the ruling coalition, no one wants to be responsible for bringing down Netanyahu and his government based solely on police recommendations.

Jewish Home chair Naftali Bennett, Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon, and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman have indicated they do not intend to leave the government or demand Netanyahu quit.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (r) and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, at a press conference regarding the reduction in vacation days in the education system at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, on January 8, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

PM’s travel plans untouched by police announcement

Two hours after the police issued its recommendations, Netanyahu’s office announced that on Wednesday morning the prime minister will, as scheduled, attend a conference organized by the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel.

On Thursday, Netanyahu is set to head to Germany to attend the prestigious Munich Security Conference. As of Tuesday night, he had not canceled his travel plans.

In Munich, Netanyahu will do what he likes to do best: deliver polished speeches in English and rub shoulders with the leading statespeople of our time. And this year’s conference has an impressive lineup, which includes UN Secretary-General António Guterres, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.

The US will be represented by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and CIA chief Mike Pompeo. The leaders of Great Britain, Austria, Ukraine, Rwanda, and Iraq, and, perhaps more interestingly, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, will also attend the confab.

Netanyahu’s office has yet to publish more information about the prime minister’s schedule for the Munich trip, but history suggests that his itinerary will include several high-profile meetings, as well as several private meetings with officials from countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

Given that the police recommendations have no real legal significance, and that Netanyahu still hasn’t been formally charged with any crimes, it seems unlikely that world leaders who would otherwise seek to meet Netanyahu would now shun him.

Netanyahu himself, of course, will gladly use the many upcoming photo-op to present himself as the indispensable statesman who fights tirelessly for Israel’s interests.

The subtext will be clear to his Israeli audience: such a national asset should not be brought down over some cigars and a few bottles of champagne.

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