When the final chapter on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political life is written — and it may be a long time from now — he is likely to go down as his nation’s Richard Nixon: politically cunning, strategically canny, toxically flawed.
The flaws came further to light Thursday when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he would indict Netanyahu, nicknamed “Bibi,” on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The prime minister called the inquiry “a witch hunt” and accused Mandelblit of being “weak,” sounding (surely not by coincidence) just like President Donald Trump on the subject of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Russia investigation.
Israeli law allows Netanyahu to contest the indictment through a hearing, a process that could take as long as a year. He has no intention of resigning and hopes to win a fifth term when elections are held April 9.
Perhaps he will. He shouldn’t.
That’s not because Netanyahu is necessarily guilty, or guilty of much. Previous Israeli leaders, including Yitzhak Rabin, have been subject to legal inquests that hinge on relatively trivial crimes. The charges against Netanyahu — the most serious of which involves the claim that he helped a businessman obtain favorable regulatory decisions in exchange for positive media coverage — are still far from conclusive.
Then again, what was Watergate other than a third-rate burglary?
Just as the real crime of Watergate was the bungled cover-up, the real scandal of Bibigate has been the repugnant political patch-up. Until last month, Netanyahu looked as if he would coast to re-election. But the race became much tighter with the creation of the center-right Blue and White party, led by former army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and former Finance Minister Yair Lapid. The pending indictment only increases Netanyahu’s political peril.
Netanyahu’s solution has been to scrounge for votes on the farther — and farthest — right. A few of those votes will come from Otzma Yehudit (or “Jewish Power”), a racist party descended from Rabbi Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach Party. Its leader, Michael Ben-Ari, was denied a U.S. visa because Washington rightly considers Kach a terrorist organization. If Netanyahu manages to cobble together a ruling coalition, Ben-Ari could become a power broker within it.
That alone is reason enough to want to see Netanyahu given the boot. Add to the list his demagogic attacks on Israeli Arabs, his closeness to far-right European leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and his public sympathy for an Israeli soldier who killed a wounded Palestinian terrorist in cold blood, and a consistent picture emerges. Netanyahu is a man for whom no moral consideration comes before political interest and whose chief political interest is himself. He is a cynic wrapped in an ideology inside a scheme.
Nor is the blight simply moral. Jews the world over face a swelling and increasingly deadly tide of anti-Semitism, while Zionism has become a dirty word in left-wing circles. To have an Israeli prime minister lend credence to the slur that Zionism is a form of racism by prospectively bringing undoubted racists into his coalition is simply unforgivable. It emboldens the progressive assault on Israel. It leaves its defenders embarrassed and perplexed.
Most seriously, it weakens a central element in the defense of Israel and the Jews: moral self-confidence. Anti-Israel slanders may abound, but they will do little to hurt the state if a majority of Israelis understand they have no serious foundation in truth. Netanyahu’s behavior jeopardizes that confidence.
It’s a shame. As I noted last year, in matters of policy and execution, Netanyahu has been a remarkably effective prime minister. On his watch, Israel’s economy has thrived, its diplomatic horizons have grown, its borders have been defended and its enemies have been humiliated. Thanks to Trump, whom he cultivated astutely and assiduously, he got his way on the Iran deal, brought the American embassy to Jerusalem and pursued openings with the Arab world without making irreversible concessions to the Palestinians.
Israel’s critics may like none of this, but from an Israeli standpoint they are considerable successes. Yet just as Nixon’s achievements in domestic and foreign policy were undone by skulduggery and paranoia, Netanyahu’s legacy has been permanently tarred by his apparent corruption, his appeals (or indifference) to bigotry and his demonization of his political opponents. Lest it be forgotten, both Gantz and Lapid are veterans of Netanyahu’s governments.
The good news is that through the planned indictments, Israel has again furnished proof that it’s a state governed by law. And with the creation of the first serious opposition party in a decade, Israelis have also shown that they are committed to competitive democratic institutions and a meaningful political alternative.
It’s time they seize it. The idea that Gantz and Lapid are leftist squishes is absurd. And the reign of King Bibi has gone on long enough.