When former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert came under criminal investigation on bribery charges a decade ago, he took the honorable route and resigned, opening the way for new elections that brought Benjamin Netanyahu to power. Now it’s Netanyahu’s turn: Israel’s attorney general announced Nov. 21 that he plans to indict the sitting prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. To the detriment of Israel and its democracy, Netanyahu is taking the low road.
Rather than accede to the many calls for him to resign – and a poll showing that a majority of Israelis want him to go – Netanyahu has adopted what might be called, and what probably deliberately is, a Trumpian defense. The charges against him, he claims, are an “attempted coup”; the police investigators and prosecutors who spent years preparing them are guilty of a “witch hunt” and should themselves be investigated.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu staged a public rally in Tel Aviv and bused in supporters to demonstrate against the “coup.” The result was a welcome sign that he may have gone too far: Key leaders of his Likud party declined to attend. One of them, Gideon Saar, has said he will challenge Netanyahu for the party leadership in a primary.
Netanyahu’s intransigence is particularly worrying because it is the primary reason Israeli politicians have been unable to form a government following elections in April and again in September. Neither the Likud’s right-wing alliance nor its center-left opposition commands a majority in the Knesset. The centrist Blue and White party, which holds the most seats, says it will not form an alliance with Likud unless Netanyahu agrees to give up the prime minister’s post, at least while his criminal case plays out.
Netanyahu appears to hope that remaining in office will save him from the conviction and prison term that were Olmert’s fate. He has been trying to assemble sufficient support in parliament to pass a law granting himself immunity, though he doesn’t appear to have the votes. Rather than concede, he appears ready to drag the country to a third election early next year, even though the polls suggest that his party would lose seats – and that the result, in the absence of his resignation, would be yet another hung parliament.
Having served longer than any prime minister, Netanyahu is risking the destruction of what might be a solid legacy. On his watch, the Israeli economy has thrived, and he has managed the country’s external defense soberly. His feuding with President Barack Obama, and subsequent ardent courtship of President Donald Trump, has done much to polarize U.S. views of Israel along partisan lines. But relations with Washington could be repaired by a more centrist government.
What’s needed is a decision by Netanyahu to subordinate his personal political interests to those of his country. That would be un-Trumpian. But the Israeli leader ought to recognize that his resort to populist sloganeering will not prevent his political downfall.