“Background noise” was the way Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahucharacterised the decision of his former chief of staff, Ari Harow, to become a state witness. The following day, the prime minister’s press officer declared – for the 100th time – that “Nothing will happen, because nothing happened.” Despite his relentless effort to paint a business-as-usual atmosphere, this time it looks as if Netanyahu is actually going down.
At least two probes dealing with serious allegations of bribery, breach of trust and fraud seem likely to end with an indictment against Israel’s premier. In “Case 1,000”, police suspect Netanyahu accepted lavish gifts from wealthy businessmen, while, in certain instances, he even provided services in return.
“Harow is the game changer,” as one prominent Israeli columnist explained. Before becoming chief of staff, he was responsible for maintaining Netanyahu’s connections with several billionaires, and is likely to possess incriminating information about his former boss’s relations with these affluent figures.
But even before Harow flipped, the police divulged that Netanyahu had intervened on behalf of Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan who, for years, had given Netanyahu and his family presents worth hundreds of thousands of shekels. According to the police, the prime minister had approached both former US Ambassador Dan Shapiro and Secretary of State John Kerry to help procure a ten-year visa to the US for Milchan. The police also noted that Milchan holds a 9.8 percent stake in Israel’s Channel 10, which is subject to regulation by Israel’s Ministry of Communications, headed until recently by Netanyahu.
The second probe, called “Case 2,000”, focuses on recordings the police obtained after confiscating Harow’s personal computer and phone. Capturing conversations between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and the popular Ynet News website, the recordings reveal that just before the 2015 Israeli elections, Mozes offered to help Netanyahu to stay in power “for as long as [he] want[s]”. In a quid pro quo deal, the publisher requested that Netanyahu pass legislation limiting the ability of Yedioth Ahronoth’s main competitor, the pro-Netanyahu Israel HaYom newspaper, to distribute papers free of charge.
These probes are perhaps the most incriminating, but, as the noose tightens, Netanyahu will have to deal with a number of other legal inquiries as well. The prime minister’s personal attorney is one of the major suspects in “Case 3,000”, which is looking at suspicious acquisitions on the part of the Israeli military involving alleged bribes and fraud. According to Ha’aretz, “Netanyahu’s personal lawyer was due to earn tens of millions of shekels from an agreement, since suspended, to buy three submarines from Germany.” The personal lawyer, however, is not the only link between Netanyahu and the corrupt transaction, since the deal seems to have been supported by the prime minister and approved behind the back of the previous defence minister, who had opposed the procurement of the submarines.
Lastly, the police have recommended pressing charges against Sarah Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, for misusing state funds, including the movement of furniture from the prime minister’s official residence to her private home and paying an electrician to rewire her private abode at the taxpayers’ expense. Israeli newspapers suggest that she is likely to be indicted soon.
Netanyahu’s 11-year rule thus appears to be fast approaching an inglorious end. The more interesting question now, however, is what the significance of these developments will be. Two points are worth making.
First, Netanyahu is not really an outlier. Many leaders and politicians across the globe, particularly those who, like Netanyahu, have managed to stay in power for many years, have also become corrupt by abusing the privileges and responsibilities bestowed upon them by their office. Yet what is unusual about the Israeli case is that some of the corrupt protagonists actually end up in jail.
Indeed, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was recently released from prison after serving 16 months for corruption, and, over the past two decades, several ministers have also sat in prison cells, at times for years on end. Even though the circumstances are quite different, the fact that former President Moshe Katsav sat several years behind barsfor rape is yet another sign that in Israel top-ranking individuals are not immune from judicial review. The relative autonomy of the judicial system from the executive institutions alongside the ability – and willingness – to imprison high-power individuals is not something to take lightly.
The second point has to do with the impact of Netanyahu’s potential collapse on Israel’s colonial project. In this regard, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
Politically, those in a position to replace Netanyahu at the helm of Israel’s government – whether from within the Likud’s ranks or from other parties – are either even more extreme than the prime minister (eg, Likud prince Gideon Sa’ar or Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett), hold nearly identical views (Labor party leader Avi Gabbay), or, as we say in Hebrew, are made of Teflon, meaning that they have no backbone at all (Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid). None of these political leaders will challenge Israel’s colonial project, needless to say to “acquiesce” to the Palestinian demand of self-determination and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.
Ideologically, the problem is even more severe. As the public and political response to the Elor Azaria murder trial reveals, the Palestinians are considered by many in Israel to be subhuman and thus killable subjects. These sentiments – as the court’s sentence of a mere year and a half for murder and the widespread call for a pardon for Azaria reveal – are part of Israel’s dominant ideology and common sense, which Netanyahu has actively encouraged over the years through his hate speeches towards Palestinians. Even the same judicial system that imprisons politicians is the handmaiden to settler colonialism when it comes to Palestinians.
To create an ideological shift, it is insufficient to cut off the king’s head; rather, what is needed is a sea change in public opinion. Tragically, even if Netanyahu ends up behind bars, it appears that the colonial common sense will continue to reign for many years to come.
Neve Gordon is a Leverhulme visiting fellow at SOAS, University of London.