The official opening of the investigative process against Netanyahu is the chance to shed light on moves and strategies of the major Israeli political forces in a moment of high uncertainty and fragility
On January 2nd, the visit to the house of the Israeli PM on part of an investigative team of the Anti-Corruption Unit Lahav 433 marked the official beginning of the criminal enquiry against Netanyahu. The talk with the PM lasted three hours and marked the outset of an investigative procedure that that has placed Bibi at the heart of the Israeli public debate.
At this respect, though, it is to be noted that it is not an unprecedented debate, since it is not the first time that a similar episode comes to challenge Israel’s political stability: as early as 1996, in fact, Netanyahu was the first PM to be placed under criminal investigation while in office; after him, it was the turn of Barak and Sharon; and, finally, there was the trial against Olmert, the first PM to be found guilty and sentenced to prison.
Last Monday, the criminal investigation against Netanyahu was initiated by the police with the approval of the Attorney General Mandelbit, who had first opened a probe against the PM last June, following alleged proves of corruption raised by the Unit Lahav 433.
To be under investigation are relationships founded on the exchange of gifts and favors that Netanyahu seems to have maintained with various businessmen, both Israeli and foreigner, and that might involve criminal activities and affairs. In particular, the attention of the police is focused on deals for the purchase of arms signed with the German firm ThyssenKrupp and on the relationship between Netanyahu and the French Arnaud Mimran, already condemned for fraud.
The above picture was then made even more complex by the news reported by Haaretz according to which the investigation would also involve the tape of a conversation between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes –owner of the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth– in which the two men seem to reach a deal that would grant Mozes financial and business benefits in exchange for a pro-Netanyahu coverage. The deal, that would ensure Mozes primacy within the Israeli media and journalistic system, has caused much scandal because it directly affects the faith of the Israelis in their information system and –more specifically- in Mozes’s newspaper, whose impartiality and independence has always been praised by the Israelis.
While the procedure has just entered its first stage and we are still in a phase of speculations, suppositions, and waiting, what is interesting to look at is what the affair reveals on the current reality of Israeli politics and its major actors – Netanyahu, his Likud Party, and the Opposition to it.
As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the episode reveals his great capacity (already proven along the years and in the previous periods of ups and downs of his political career) of turning the cards of the Israeli political game in his favor. Faced with the accusations, in fact, Netanyahu promptly admitted having accepted gifts from businessmen with whom he had/has relationships, but stressed that they never went beyond what is legal.
By so doing, Netanyahu effectively presented himself to the Israeli public as the “victim” of a series of accusations that have no foundation and are politically-motivated. With a post on his Facebook page, Netanyahu has thus tried to turn the entire issue on his favor talking of a “persecution” that has been going on for years against him and his family and creating a sense of “discrimination” among his electoral basin – that seems indeed to have rallied around the leader to defend his innocence.
In a delicate juncture, in which Netanyahu’s political future is at stake, the PM has shown great ability in strengthening the consent of his voters; in making them a united front suspicious of all the forces (political and non-political alike) that lie outside the Likud and its ultra-right coalition; and in creating cohesion within the right-wing fringes of the Israeli population. Successfully exploited by Netanyahu, this strategy is worth being given attention as it seems to be the main factor that it is enabling Netanyahu to ride the wave of events rather than being drawn by it.
Similar dynamics of “rallying around the leader” are at play even within the Party that Netanyahu leads. Indeed, faced with the accusations raised against Netanyahu and with the risk incumbent upon the party’s prestige and power, even the Likud members traditionally less close to the PM have set aside their personal frictions and made themselves united in the defense of their leader and in labelling as merely “political” the accusations against him. Following the line adopted by Netanyahu himself that shouts at the political machination and plot, ministers such as Tzachi Hanegbi and Miri Regev have depicted the whole process as a “persecution” conceived and carried out by an Israeli left that is trying with all means to end Netanyahu’s government.
However, observing the behavior of this final actor of the Israeli political theatre –the Opposition to the extreme right led by Bibi- it emerges interestingly how it is actually maintaining a low profile with respect to the issue and avoiding fierce attacks against the PM.
The logic behind this strategy is the awareness that, in a delicate moment for the country’s political future as this might turn out to be, any reckless move and any hasty word could backfire. It is therefore reckoned to be wiser to wait the unfolding of events before embracing a harsh rhetoric that might risk legitimizing Netanyahu’s claims of a political plot being set up against him. It is thus in the context of this logic that it is possible to explain the caution shown until now by the Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who limited himself to moderate words of criticism towards the PM and who seems determined to wait for the outcome of the affair before moving to the offensive and conducting the final attack against Netanyahu.
As of now, Israel finds itself in a situation of nervous waiting, of uncertainty on the PM’s political future, of internal debate on the meaning of the accusations against him; and only the outcome of the investigation will be able to tell what the next moves of the major actros of the Israeli politics will be.