In July, Benjamin Netanyahu made history when he became Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister, beating the record set by the legendary David Ben-Gurion. But he made a darker kind of history this week when he became the first ever sitting Israeli Prime Minister to be indicted on criminal charges.
How is it that such a successful politician, a master communicator who punches above his weight on the world stage, is facing a criminal trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust?
The three corruption cases are complex, but critics say they are rooted in Netanyahu’s lavish sense of entitlement, a toxic relationship with billionaire donors and an obsession with manipulating the media to his advantage.
Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a Netanyahu appointee and legal professional, indicted the Prime Minister with a “heavy heart” but confident that the evidence, amassed over more than three years of exhaustive investigations, was enough to secure a conviction.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu allegedly received £300,000 of illegal gifts from the businessman Arnon Milchan, in return for helping him to sell an Israeli TV channel and get a US visa. In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of working with the media magnate Arnon “Noni” Mozes to secure better coverage in his paper Yediot Ahronot, by offering to restrict the circulation of rival newspaper, Israel Hayom, which is financed by the US-based Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson.
In Case 4000 he allegedly made regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq telecoms, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news.
Netanyahu’s fascination with the media started in 1976 when he was thrust into the public spotlight after his brother Yoni was killed during the famous raid on Entebbe. Netanyahu became an anti-terrorism activist and TV commentator. His mastery of the medium led to his appointment as Israel’s Ambassador to the UN and provided a platform to enter domestic politics. He raced ahead of his rivals with a polished, perfectly presented political persona.
After winning power in 1996, he felt besieged by what he saw as a biased left-wing media establishment that accused him of legitimising an extremist political discourse that led to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. He largely blamed the media for the collapse of his government in 1999.
After returning to power ten years later, he quickly harnessed the potential of social media to mobilise his base and dedicated considerable efforts to bolstering his ability to effectively set the news agenda.
Netanyahu has stayed in power largely because of his experience, competence and strong record on the economy and security. He claims credit for Israel’s low unemployment, high growth, impressive innovation and world leading tech sector. For many Israelis, life is good, and their businesses and jobs have got better under Bibi.
On security, Netanyahu is a cautious military leader who channels the Israeli consensus that wanted terrorism to end but no longer believed in peace with the Palestinians, because territorial concessions became missile launchpads. Netanyahu interprets that mandate as a sacred instruction to ensure stability, make no concessions and take no risks.
Israel’s current political stalemate is largely a function of Netanyahu’s waning power. After two elections in six months, Netanyahu failed to build a governing coalition, but was able to galvanise his right-wing bloc to prevent anyone else forming a government. A new opposition party led by the former army chief of staff Benny Gantz won support by expressing the need for change and an end to corruption, as Netanyahu’s Likud party lost votes.
This year, Netanyahu has been fighting a perpetual election campaign. He has impugned the motives of police and state prosecutors, slammed opponents as leftists and accused the media of bias. He described the Attorney General’s decision as an “attempted coup”.
Netanyahu is not legally obliged to resign and can remain prime minister all the way through to a trial. His political allies are standing by him for now. But as Israel heads towards a third election, the real question is whether this seismic moment will shake Israel’s political stalemate and compel his own party to oust him.