Nov 22, 2019

Netanyahu's fight for survival: "Witch hunt" claims and a stain on his legacy

Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denounced the corruption indictments leveled against him Thursday as an “attempted coup” and a witch hunt. He’s vowing to stay put, and planning a public campaign against the attorney general, state prosecutors and the police.

Driving the news: Thursday's announcement from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, though long-anticipated, was a political earthquake. The indictments for bribery, fraud and breach of trust made Netanyahu the first Israeli prime minister to face criminal charges.

  • Netanyahu stands accused of giving Israel's leading telecommunications tycoon regulatory benefits worth hundreds of millions of dollars in return for favorable news coverage.
  • He’s also accused of taking improper gifts from businessmen and bribing the owner of Israel’s largest newspaper.

On the scene: Netanyahu’s political rivals, including Benny Gantz, called on him to resign. His right-wing political allies praised his work for the country and stressed that he is innocent until proven guilty — but they didn’t say anything about political next steps.

  • Most of the senior ministers of Netanyahu’s Likud party refrained from appearing on TV or even issuing statements of support for hours. When they finally did, their comments sounded more like eulogies.
  • Some senior Likud members briefed reporters anonymously that “it seems like the Netanyahu era is over and it is just a matter of time before he leaves.”

But, but, but: Netanyahu's top priority is to quell any dissent within the party ranks, and he still plans to lead Likud into Israel’s third election in the span of a year.

  • That election is expected primarily because the allegations against Netanyahu have deadlocked Israeli politics.
  • Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, failed this week to form a government to oust Netanyahu.
  • A national unity government involving both leaders appears impossible given the charges against Netanyahu. Without a deal in the next three weeks a new election will be called.
  • Even if Netanyahu manages to win, it’s unclear whether he would receive a mandate to govern given the charges against him.

The big picture: Regardless of what happens next, today clearly dealt Israel’s longest-serving prime minister a devastating blow.

  • Netanyahu, the son of a historian and someone who sees himself as on a historical mission, now has an unmistakable stain on his legacy.

Zoom out: Netanyahu has been arguably President Trump's closest international ally. In Washington, many Democrats drew parallels between the indictments and Trump’s impeachment process.

“Netanyahu is accused of accepting bribes, trading government favors, and manipulating a free press. Like his pal Donald Trump, he'll stop at nothing to enrich himself and stay in power."
— Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Twitter

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Scoop: German foreign minister to travel to Israel with warning on annexation

Heiko Maas. Photo: Michael Kappeler/picture alliance via Getty Images

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is expected to travel to Israel next week to warn that there will be consequences if Israeli leaders move forward with plans to annex parts of the West Bank, Israeli officials and European diplomats tell me.

Why it matters: Israeli and European officials agree that if Israel goes ahead with unilateral annexation, the EU will respond with sanctions.