Is This the End of Netanyahu?

Ever since he joined politics, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been dogged by scandals and controversies that never seem to go away. Known to his supporters as “Bibi”, in July this year he became Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister surpassing, David Ben-Gurion the founding father of the Jewish state.

But just like the proverbial cat with nine lives, Netanyahu has always surmounted the challenges on his political path even when some of his closest supporters thought he wouldn’t survive. His early challenge came in 1993 when he joined the race to lead the right-wing Likud Party against his main rival David Levy. One anonymous caller claimed that he had a secret tape of him and his image consultant Ruth Barr in a sexually compromising position.

Such allegations touching on the morality of a member of the Knesset, especially one who was campaigning to lead the main opposition party, were set to derail Netanyahu’s political ambitions. At first he dismissed them as part of a smear campaign by his main rival. Without mentioning names, he told Mabat TV that “one man, surrounded by a not-small group of criminals,” was blackmailing him to drop out of the race with a sex tape of him and someone who is not his wife.

Although Netanyahu later accepted the he had an affair with Barr, and apologized to his wife, he made a thinly veiled attack against his rival Levy saying “Whoever uses methods of spying, recording and breaking in, is not worthy to be a leader and should be in prison.” Despite the scandal, he won and became the leader of the Likud.

As the opposition leader, Netanyahu’s strong nationalist views won him support from the disenchanted Jews who embraced right-wing extremism. He strongly based his opposition politics on disparaging the Palestinian-Israel peace accord which had been signed by the then Prime Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Oslo Norway. One of his most extreme speeches in this regard was the one he made from a Jerusalem balcony with a banner reading, “Death to Arafat” as the crowd below chanted slogans against Prime Minister Rabin.

This growing right-wing extremism resulted in the assassinations of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995 by Yigal Amir. Rabin had just finished addressing at a pro Oslo accord rally in Tel-Aviv when Amir fired three shots fatally wounding him.

Following the death of Rabin, Shimon Peres took over as Prime Minister but decided to call for an early election to give his government a new mandate to implement the peace process. But despite, the assassination of Rabin being blamed on incitement by right-wing politicians such as Netanyahu, and opinion polls showing that Peres was in the lead, there was a last-minute shift in voters’ opinion after a series of terrorist attacks by Hamas.

These attacks provided fodder for Netanyahu to justify his strong opposition of the Oslo accord and to despise Peres as a weak leader who couldn’t protect Israel from attacks. When elections did eventually take place, Netanyahu won by a slight margin in a surprise victory that made him Israel’s youngest Prime Minister at the age of 46. Because of his strong nationalistic views, he drew most of his votes from the ultra-orthodox community while Peres was supported by Israeli Arabs.

Just months after his election, criminal charges were launched against Netanyahu for appointing Mr Robin Bar-On, who was a lawyer with close links with Likud Party, as Attorney General. This he did, intending to facilitate a plea bargain for his political ally called Aryeh Deri who was facing corruption charges. Although Netanyahu later admitted that he erred in making the appointment he absolved himself from any crime arguing, “This error was inflated totally out of proportion by our political reasons”.On April 21, 1997, the charges against Netanyahu were dropped by Israel state prosecutors who said that they didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute him, even though they believed that there was a “tangible suspicion about the propriety of his role in the affair.”

But this was only a temporary reprieve, as scandals and controversies continued to follow Netanyahu throughout his multiple terms as prime minister. In February this year, Israel’s Attorney General announced that he would face charges of bribery and breach of trust concerning three cases, pending a final hearing. It is alleged that he received gifts from wealthy businessmen and granted favours to be given positive coverage in the press. This comes as dramatic recordings which are part of the investigations revealed how Netanyahu threatened an Israeli newspaper with retaliation with all the tools at his disposal if he was not given favourable coverage. But in his usual stoic manner, he has rubbished the allegations terming them as baseless.

Adding to his string of predicaments is his failure to form a government after the just concluded elections. The responsibility has now been transferred to his main rival, Benny Gantz. If he also fails then parliament could be asked to provide a third candidate in a final bid to avoid a repeat election. But sources intimate that Gantz is likely to form a minority coalition with the sole intention of ousting Netanyahu and not to govern. However, Netanyahu has vowed to fight such an arrangement by taking the battle to the people.

The truth is that storm clouds have now gathered over Netanyahu’s political horizon and are threatening to send him to political oblivion. He knows very well that losing his grip on power would also make him susceptible to prosecution. One thing that cannot be ignored in all these is the cult-like support Netanyahu enjoys among Israelis