Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara (Image credit: Amos Ben Gershom/Government Press Office of Israel)
What we are witnessing is, in effect, little less than an attempt at a bloodless coup d’état – conducted, not by the military, but by the messianic, indeed manic, mainstream media, buttressed by affiliated like-minded civil society elites, in a frenzied effort to impose their minority worldview on the nation...Enraged by their inability to rally sufficient public support on substantive policy issues, to unseat the object of their visceral enmity, Benjamin Netanyahu, and nonplussed by the tenacity of his “delinquent” hold on the premiership, despite their undisguised loathing, his political rivals have despaired of removing him from office by normal electoral means…Instead, they have descended into an unprecedented nadir of mean-spirited malevolence in Israeli public life….
Martin Sherman, February 22, 2015
These are words I wrote, almost exactly three years ago, just prior to Netanyahu’s somewhat unexpected reelection in March 2015. In large measure, they are just as relevant now as they were then.
No uncritical pro-Bibi apologist
As readers who have followed my "INTO THE FRAY" column will recall, I have never been an uncritical, pro-Bibi apologist.
On the contrary, I have excoriated a number of his policy decisions, regularly and severely, and have even called for his resignation…on matters of policy.
Thus, for example, I strongly condemned his 2009 Bar Ilan speech, in which he accepted the idea of Palestinian statehood – see here and here. Likewise, I was severely critical of his decision to release over 1000 convicted terrorists (2011) to secure the release of captured IDF soldier, Gilad Shalit — and was even more opposed to a subsequent 2013 release of prisoners as a futile gesture to assuage the then-US Secretary of State, John Kerry, in the vain hope of coaxing Mahmoud Abbas into renewing negotiations — see here and here.
I vehemently disapproved of his ill-advised attempt at rapprochement with Turkey — particularly the compensation paid for the casualties incurred when Israeli commandos had to defend themselves against attempts to lynch them on the Turkish vessel, Mavi Marmara, trying to breach the maritime quarantine of the terror enclave in Gaza.
Perhaps my most serious—and ongoing—criticism of Netanyahu is his enduring failure to adequately address the problem of international delegitimization of Israel, by refusing to allot adequate resources to initiate and sustain a strategic diplomatic offensive to confront, curtail and counter the global assault on the legitimacy of the Jewish state — see most recently here.
But for all my sharp disagreements with him, my criticism was always focused exclusively on matters of substantive policy, never on matters of persona or personality.
Smokes? Hootch? Really?!
Looking back at my 2015 article today, it is surprising (or not) just how little has changed since then.
Today, just as then, it is staggering just how petty and vindictive the vicious vendetta against Israel’s longest serving prime minister is—and how utterly irrelevant its alleged incriminations are to both the challenges the nation is facing and to Netanyahu’s fitness, as PM, to meet them.
Indeed, much of what I wrote then is—except for several differences of nuance and detail—entirely pertinent today: “Rather than engaging in a substantive debate on how to conduct the affairs of the nation, they have embarked on a dishonorable – the less charitable might say “disgraceful” – attempt to oust a prime minister by means of a maelstrom of petty and pernicious ad hominem attacks…directed not only against Netanyahu but…against his spouse, who – whatever her character defects may (or may not) be—is hardly a relevant factor in determining his ability to govern.”
Indeed, as I pointed out: “Devoid of any persuasive policy alternative of real substance, and of any alternative candidate of authentic stature, Netanyahu’s…detractors have mobilized to exploit their unelected positions of power and privilege to launch a massive media blitz against him and his wife – with the naked intention of degrading his political stature by denigrating his/her alleged personal excesses.”
Thus, after over a year of intensive investigations, that spanned several continents and reportedly cost the Israeli taxpayer tens of millions of shekels, all that the police could come up with is that Netanyahu accepted an unseemly amount of smokes and hootch from his long-time buddies—in exchange for which, at the end of the day, they received precisely zilch, nada, zippo!
Ignoring ISIS, Iran and Islamists...
Back in 2015 I expressed astonishment that: “… in a country…facing the specter of a nuclear Iran, an ascendant Islamic State threatening stability in Jordan…the deployment of Iranian-bolstered Hezbollah forces on the Golan, growing jihadist dominance of Sinai, and burgeoning anti-Semitism across Europe, the national media somehow found it appropriate to focus almost exclusively on ‘strategically crucial’ issues such as who received (gasp) $1,000 paid for recycled bottles from the PM’s official residence, whether Sara Netanyahu’s hairdos were excessively costly, or whether the prime minister’s garden furniture had been purchased in strict accordance with prescribed guidelines.”
My astonishment at the nature of the recent investigation remains undiminished. Indeed, as I remarked then: “While I would not wish to belittle, in any way, the need for personal integrity of public officials and for keeping a stringent lookout to ensure the judicious use of taxpayers’ hard earned money – what we witnessed in recent days was not a display of unbiased investigative journalism…It was a carefully choreographed and coordinated attempt at a political putsch by the press.”
The distinct impression is that the same anti-Bibi choreography persists today—bolstered by what is looking increasing like a contrived and politically motivated police investigation.
Guilty of…serial impotence??
After all, even if the police allegations are correct and Netanyahu did accept an inordinate amount of perishable merchandise to indulge his hedonistic tastes, it appears that he was resoundingly unsuccessful in providing any “quid” in return for any ill-gotten “quo”.
Accordingly, if Netanyahu did, in fact have any untoward motives with regard to improperly advancing the interests of plutocratic pals, the most he seems to be guilty of in this regard is serial incompetence in delivering the goods in exchange for the goodies.
It is of course, no secret that, in my eyes, Bibi is a deeply flawed prime minister. However, in my eyes, he is also the least deeply flawed of all his potential rivals who are possible candidates to replace him--particularly the currently leading contender, Yair Lapid, who now has apparently emerged as a key witness in the investigation against the man he wishes to depose.
You couldn’t make this stuff up!
After all, given Lapid’s failure to unseat Netanyahu in a reported “putsch” attempt while serving as a minister in his government (which led to his sacking), and his failure to do so at the ballot box in the 2015 elections, one might well be forgiven for allowing the suspicion to creep into one’s mind that he was only too happy to contribute to his nemesis’s downfall by non-parliamentary means.
I do not want to dwell on the legal (or legalistic) intricacies of the suspicions against Netanyahu, as I have neither the information nor the professional expertise to do so.
However, as a reasonably well-informed layman, a prima facie perusal of the published allegations raise several troubling questions.
For example, if—as Lapid apparently claims—when he was serving as Finance Minister, Netanyahu tried to improperly induce him to extend a law passed by the Olmert government granting tax benefits to wealthy associates, why then did he not expose such malfeasance earlier, instead of waiting over three years for the police to prompt him?
This sense of unease is heightened not only by critiques of several prominent lawyers, who talk of “serious gaps” in the file submitted by the police, but even more so by reports of a "deep rift” between the police and the prosecution as to the thoroughness (or lack thereof) of the investigation and its findings.
But beyond the claims and counter-claims of impropriety and charges of unjustified discriminatory selective enforcement against Netanyahu (but not against rival politicians), there is the “minor” question of…common sense.
For even if one concedes that the Prime Minister was somewhat cavalier in accepting expensive gifts from his well-heeled friends over a period of a decade—when he was both in and out of office—common sense would seem to dictate that public censure and punitive disciplinary measures would be far more appropriate than criminal prosecution and removal from office.
Thus, when the next election comes, Netanyahu would have to seek renewed approval of his party and the public—in light of, or despite, the exposure of his hedonistic lapses.
A call for common sense
This of course is not a call to condone excesses of those in power, or diminish the imperative for clean government—but a call for reasonable and proportionate response to alleged infringements, in light of the underlying intent and de facto consequences.
The merits of this approach are intensely magnified when such alleged infringements are compared to the threats and challenges Israel faces today. With Iran at the gates, greatly empowered by the Obama-sponsored nuclear deal (which Netanyahu rightly and courageously strove to thwart, only to have his efforts undermined by those who now seek his removal); with an ever-more aggressive Iranian-proxy, Hezbollah, deploying in the Golan; with a Hamas-controlled Gaza edging ever-closer to confrontation; with Sinai descending into ungovernable brutality; and with Israel fighting for international legitimacy; it seems almost inconceivable that the government should be thrown into turmoil over cigars and champagne…even if, as charged, Netanyahu did act to help his friend, with a long record of service to the nation, with his visa arrangement in the US.
Indeed, given the ilk of Israel’s enemies, it is hardly implausible to conjecture that they would be greatly heartened by the spectacle of such disarray—and, emboldened by the belief that the government is distracted by such domestic strife, feel that the time is ripe to test the Jewish state with coordinated aggression.
Prime minister, not Pope
As I mentioned previously, I have no personal or ideological allegiance to Netanyahu. Indeed, some might believe I even have cause to feel slighted by him.
However, none of this should obscure the decades of his distinguished service to the country –as a special forces warrior, an accomplished diplomat, an astute finance minister, a brilliant foreign minister and as Israel’s longest serving prime minister.
Of course, this does not put him above the law, but it surely should put any allegation that he purposely acted to harm the national interest for personal greed in perspective.
After all, Netanyahu was elected as the Prime Minster, not as the Pope. Accordingly, he should be judged primarily on the basis of his political and strategic accomplishments, not his personal morality--and his capacity to deal with the challenges facing the country should weigh far more than his ascetics or his hedonism.
The real casualty
There are testing times ahead for Israeli society. Beset by harrowing external threats and what is liable to be unprecedented domestic tumult, there are unlikely to be any positive outcomes that emerge from the current furor.
If Netanyahu is not indicted, or indicted and acquitted, it will be a massive blow to the credibility of the nation’s law enforcement.
If he is convicted and forced out of office, many will see this as naked politicization of law enforcement in the country, in effect, a legalistic coup d'état, designed to annul the outcome of elections--and will deal a mortal blow to their faith in the democratic process.
Either way, there will be no winners—and the real casualty will be the public’s belief in the intuitions of state in Israel.
Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies