Wednesday 16 January 2019

As Netanyahu comes out punching over bribery probe, his legacy is to have left peace process on the floor

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting to stay in power. Photo: Reuters
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting to stay in power. Photo: Reuters

Mary Fitzgerald

As Teflon politicians go, few compare to Israel's pugnacious Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

During a political career spanning some three decades, he has been accused on several occasions of alleged fraud or breach of trust but always managed to side-step prosecution. But the latest scandal to engulf his office has many in the region speculating whether it will prove his undoing.

Earlier this week investigators announced there was sufficient evidence to indict Mr Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two cases that involve alleged favours for wealthy benefactors.

He is suspected of accepting some $300,000 (€241,000) worth of gifts, including Champagne and expensive cigars, from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.

Netanyahu in turn allegedly lobbied US officials on Milchan's behalf regarding a visa matter and helped promote his business interests in Israel. The second case hinges on allegations Netanyahu offered preferential treatment to a newspaper publisher in exchange for positive media coverage.

Netanyahu has - true to form - come out fighting, rejecting the allegations and claiming investigators were overzealous.

In a televised address this week, he recounted that he had survived 15 other probes during his career and predicted these latest accusations would also come to nothing.

While Israel's attorney general will review the evidence before deciding whether to indict - a process which is likely to take several months - many are wondering how the weight of the case may affect Netanyahu's political manoeuvrings at a particularly difficult time, not just for the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process but the region more generally as Syria's war gets even more tangled.

Netanyahu likes to present himself as a political survivor and he is eyeing his place in the history books. He is currently serving his third consecutive term in office and his fourth overall.

Should he cling to power until summer next year, he would be the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history after David Ben-Gurion, the state's founder.

This week's developments come as cracks began to appear in the relationship between Netanyahu and the Trump administration.

Two months after Trump upended decades of US policy by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel - endearing himself to Netanyahu while alienating the Palestinian leadership - the US president told a right-wing Israeli newspaper he was concerned about the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and questioned Israel's willingness to make peace.

The White House this week rebutted Israeli media claims the US had discussed with Netanyahu a plan that would see Israel annex territory in the West Bank.

Some interpreted the reports as an attempt by Netanyahu to rally hardliners in his party and deflect from the gathering storm over the bribery and fraud allegations.

There is good reason for the Palestinians to worry that with the accusations hanging over Netanyahu he may try to further shore up his credentials with the harder reaches of the Israeli right and take more steps that could smother completely the prospect of a two-state solution.

Having dominated Israel's political stage for the past decade, the Netanyahu effect on the body politic means the public conversation has narrowed and tacked more to the right than ever.

Maintaining the coalitions of right-wing and religious parties he has crafted to keep him in office has exacted a heavy price on what remains of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, with the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank under his leadership a particular sticking point.

With months to go before the attorney general makes his decision regarding indictment, the way Netanyahu navigates this particular storm will have an impact far beyond Israel's borders.

In the case of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who spent time in jail for bribery and fraud, it took eight months before he was indicted and he remained as head of a caretaker government until early elections were called.

An indictment for Netanyahu would likely trigger snap elections, raising all kinds of questions about what a post-Netanyahu political landscape in Israel would look like.

One thing is certain: the damage done during the Netanyahu era to the chances of a sustainable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be very difficult - if not impossible - to repair.

Irish Independent

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