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Netanyahu’s Bid to Save Himself Once More

The Israeli prime minister's visit to the U.S. comes as he faces the greatest threat yet to his long reign.

Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images

Benjamin Netanyahu’s most impressive skill as Israel’s prime minister has been his ability to keep his job. “A serial survivor of scandals,” as the Associated Press recently labeled him. But the latest scandal may prove the most threatening yet. After a yearlong investigation, the Israeli police recommended last month that Netanyahu be indicted on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust—increasing the possibility that his seemingly endless premiership could end quite abruptly.

Police say a Hollywood mogul and an Australian businessman flooded Netanyahu with nearly $300,000 gifts in exchange for political favors, and that he cut a deal with a newspaper publisher for favorable coverage. Israel’s attorney general now has to decide whether to indict Netanyahu, a protracted process that will take months. At least two other corruption cases loom over the prime minister, including another deal for positive news coverage. Police questioned Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, as part of that probe on Friday. Both have denied any wrongdoing.

The interrogations came hours before Netanyahu left for the United States, where he will address the AIPAC Conference and meet with President Donald Trump on Monday. The timing of this trip could not be more fortuitous: Just as he’s facing the biggest challenge of his political life back home, he will travel abroad to present himself as the only Israeli who can manage the U.S. relationship. He will also enjoy the optics of 18,000 American Jews’ applauding him at AIPAC. “He’s not going to meet very much public resistance at all and it’s going to be powerful imagery back in Israel,” said Michael Koplow, an analyst with the Israel Policy Forum. “He’s going to be in front of mostly adoring crowds and he’s going to use this as best as he can.”

But the skill with which Netanyahu will undoubtedly use his Washington visit underscores the instincts that have sustained his tenure as Israel’s prime minister, which began in 2009. One common observation about Netanyahu is that he has only one major priority as prime minister: Iran. But that’s not entirely true. His top priority has always been himself. Self-preservation is not a unique quality among politicians—who among them wants to lose their grip on power?—but Netanyahu has consistently made shortsighted decisions to protect himself, at the expense of the country’s long-term interests.

Netanyahu is driven by a worldview—partly inherited by his father, the deceased historian Benzion Netanyahu, an expert in the fifteenth century Jewish expulsion from Spain—that sees the Jewish future as perpetually at risk. And he sees the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, not without good reason, as posing the most perilous threat to Israel today. There is no use doubting the sincerity of his conviction there. There is use, however, in recognizing the myopia with which he’s dealt with it.

Netanyahu ruined his relationship with President Barack Obama over their differences in confronting the Iranian challenge. In 2015, he accepted a backdoor invitation from House Speaker John Boehner to address Congress, unambiguously aligning himself with Obama’s opposition, ruptured America’s bipartisan support for Israel and made his country a Republican cause. His political motivations were apparent: The speech came two weeks before an Israeli election. The gambit may have worked—his Likud Party won, securing him a fourth term—but the consequences of that decision are still deeply felt. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that Democrats and Republicans are growing further apart on their views on Israel.

But Netanyahu’s miscalculations on Iran are exacerbated by his mismanagement of Israel’s other existential crisis. Unlike many Israeli political figures to Netanyahu’s right, he has recognized that Israel cannot rule over Palestinians in the West Bank forever without suffering profound moral and political consequences. “We don’t want a binational state,” he said in 2014. “We want a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the nation-state of the Jews.” But this acknowledgment—that Israel will one day face the choice of either franchising all Palestinians and losing its Jewish character, or not franchising them and losing its democratic character—was undermined by Netanyahu’s continuous approval to build settlements in the West Bank. Instead of embracing the Obama administration’s peace process, Netanyahu sought to pacify the settler constituencies in his coalition, gobbling up land the Palestinians see as their own and making conditions harder for an independent state to ever emerge there.

When Donald Trump became president, Netanyahu got something he always wanted but never had as prime minister: a Republican in the White House. In the past, he had to deal with Bill Clinton and Obama’s pressures for peace. Now, he would have more freedom, except that could also be a curse. Every Israeli prime minister needs an American president to provide him cover with his base—so he can say to his supporters, “I’d love to do this, but I can’t.” Trump provided that early last year. The Israeli right had been demanding unrestrained building in the West Bank, and Trump told Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a bit.”

But Netanyahu’s unwillingness to advance Israel’s true interests is most apparent in his recent wavering about a two-state solution. At a press conference with Netanyahu in February of 2017, Trump said, “I’m looking at two states and one state, and I like the one that both parties like.”

Netanyahu could have responded by saying Israel favors two states because it is the only way it can preserve itself as a Jewish-majority democracy. He could have added that he was skeptical of the Palestinian leadership, that he had serious concerns about relinquishing territory in the modern Middle East, where history has shown that territorial vacuums are often filled by the worst forces. But he was too shortsighted—or too concerned with appeasing his right-wing coalition—to make the essential point. “Rather than deal with labels,” he said, “I’d like to deal with substance.”

All of these moves, while exasperating, have been extremely effective at helping Netanyahu remain on Balfour Street for almost 10 years now. And there’s good reason to suspect he will deploy that same guile and ideological agility to save his job when it’s most endangered. Shalom Lipner, who worked in seven prime minister’s offices and is now at the Brookings Institution, tells me Netanyahu is likely now to be more beholden to his government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, now that he’s in a weakened position. “There’s a bona fide risk of him not having all that many defenses left to stave off the healthy appetites of his coalition partners,” he said. “He’ll have to make a real decision about whether he’s willing at all costs to keep this coalition together or whether he has red lines that he won’t cross.”

It is hard to know what will come of the investigations of Netanyahu. But the severity of the recent charges and the mounting evidence have made Netanyahu more vulnerable than he’s ever been. If the police recommendations really are the beginning of the end for Netanyahu, the great irony will be that Israel’s master of political self-preservation, who consistently prioritized his own future over his country’s, will also be the agent of his own undoing.