Israeli PM's future in doubt as graft probe intensifies

Mr Benjamin Netanyahu (far left) with his advisers at a weekly Cabinet meeting. Suddenly, the long-serving Israeli leader seems not so invincible after all.
Mr Benjamin Netanyahu (far left) with his advisers at a weekly Cabinet meeting. Suddenly, the long-serving Israeli leader seems not so invincible after all.PHOTO: REUTERS

Country starts to imagine life after Netanyahu after former close aide turns state witness

JERUSALEM • A black curtain went up a few months ago near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official residence in Jerusalem's leafy Balfour Street.

It screened pesky protesters from Mr Netanyahu's view - and prevented the public from seeing lawyers and detectives come and go as criminal investigations involving the Prime Minister intensified.

Now, with one of Mr Netanyahu's closest former aides having turned state witness in two cases involving suspicions of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Israelis across the political spectrum are trying on the idea of the curtain coming down on Mr Netanyahu's durable political career.

For the past eight years, Mr Netanyahu has dominated the Israeli political scene and become nearly synonymous with the state on the world stage. Long called "the magician" for his survival skills, he has quashed rivals from right and left despite never enjoying particular popularity in the street. Yet Mr Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister since Israel's first, David Ben-Gurion, suddenly appears not so invincible after all.

"All the alliances, discussions and thinking about the day after have taken on much more significance," said Mr Yoaz Hendel, chairman of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, a right-leaning research group, and a former spokesman for Mr Netanyahu.

"For the first time, people are thinking that Netanyahu won't be the prime minister next time around, whether elections take place in a few months' time or a year and a half."

Mr Netanyahu has fought off scandals for much of his public life, but experts say last Friday's signing of a state's witness agreement by Mr Ari Harow, who served as Mr Netanyahu's chief of staff and directed his 2015 re-election campaign, could be a game changer.

QUESTION MARK

For the first time, people are thinking that Netanyahu won't be the prime minister next time around, whether elections take place in a few months' time or a year and a half.

MR YOAZ HENDEL, chairman of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, a right-leaning research group, and a former spokesman for Mr Netanyahu.

Mr Harow was offered a light sentence in an unrelated matter in return for information about Mr Netanyahu in what the police have called Case 1000 and Case 2000.

In Case 1000, investigators are looking at whether Mr Netanyahu offered favours in return for gifts of expensive cigars, pink champagne and other goods from rich friends, including Mr Arnon Milchan, the Israeli Hollywood producer.

Case 2000 involves backroom dealings with a local newspaper magnate. Mr Netanyahu was recorded negotiating with the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth for favourable coverage in exchange for curtailing the circulation of a free competitor, Israel Hayom.

The police came across recordings of Mr Netanyahu's talks with the newspaper while searching Mr Harow's belongings, the Israeli news media has reported.

Adding to Mr Netanyahu's woes, Israeli news outlets late on Monday reported that the attorney-general would soon announce charges against his wife, Sara, on accusations that public funds were misused in the family residences.

Mr Netanyahu has vehemently denied any wrongdoing. On Tuesday, he made a statement about terrorism after a hospital visit to the victim of a recent attack, with no mention of the investigations.

He and his office have repeatedly lashed out at the news media and his critics, asserting that the focus on the investigations is meant to topple him under the weight of baseless accusations, rather than at the ballot box. There is, as yet, no clear contender to replace Mr Netanyahu, who is serving his third consecutive term and fourth overall. What's more, there is no precedent in Israel for a sitting prime minister to be charged.

But Professor Gadi Wolfsfeld, who teaches political communications at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, said the notion that there is nobody to replace Mr Netanyahu holds "until it happens".

"They said nobody could replace Ben-Gurion," he added.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2017, with the headline 'Israeli PM's future in doubt as graft probe intensifies'. Print Edition | Subscribe