Friday 22 June 2018

Decades-long domination by 'Bibi' is now in real jeopardy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Debbie Hill/Pool Photo via AP, File)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Debbie Hill/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Etienne Nouvelle

Benjamin Netanyahu is the dominant Israeli politician of his generation. On the domestic and international stage, no rival comes close to the veteran Likud Party leader known widely as "Bibi".

Israeli police on Tuesday recommended that the 67-year-old, four-term prime minister be indicted for bribery in two cases.

It is by no means certain that Netanyahu will be indicted. The police can only make recommendations. It is now up to Israel's attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, to decide whether to press charges. That decision could take months.

But the very fact the leader of Israel's ruling right-wing coalition is being scrutinised by prosecutors will likely affect the political calculations of his supporters, rivals and opponents within his own coalition, and across the political spectrum.

Netanyahu is under no strict legal obligation to quit following the police recommendations. Indeed, he has given every indication that he intends to remain in office while pursuing a legal battle.

There has been little public pressure from coalition partners for him to step down, although that could change as fellow politicians and the Israeli public study details of the cases.

There was speculation before the police recommendations were made public on Tuesday that Netanyahu might call early elections, seeking a public mandate that would make a prosecutor think twice before moving against him.

However, several polls in recent months have shown his popularity ebbing. Netanyahu said in a televised address on Tuesday night that he was "certain" the next elections would be held on schedule. They are not due until November 2019.

Hawkish

Netanyahu has been in power on and off since 1996. The son of a hawkish Israeli historian, he was born in Tel Aviv in 1949 and moved to the United States in the 1960s when his father got an academic job there.

He is the middle of three brothers, all of whom served in elite Israeli commando units. The eldest, Yonatan "Yoni" Netanyahu, became a national hero after he was killed in 1976 leading an assault team that stormed Entebbe Airport in Uganda to rescue Israelis and other airline passengers taken hostage by radical Palestinian and West German hijackers.

Netanyahu says his brother's death "changed my life and directed it to its present course".

Telegenic, and speaking fluent American-accented English, he first gained domestic and international attention as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations during the first Palestinian intifada (uprising) that broke out in 1987. He used this as a springboard to secure the leadership of the right-wing Likud party, running on a platform of opposition to the 1993 Oslo interim peace accords that were spearheaded by then-US president Bill Clinton, Israel's then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. But Rabin was assassinated in 1995 and Netanyahu was elected prime minister the following year, the youngest-ever Israeli to hold the position and the first to be born in Israel.

A cloud over Netanyahu's political future would compound the uncertainty surrounding prospects for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that collapsed in 2014.

If Netanyahu steps down, a successor from within Likud would need the support of the party's hardline central committee, which passed a non-binding resolution in December calling for annexation of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, captured by Israel in a 1967 war and which Palestinians want for a future state.

Recent tensions along the Syrian and Lebanese borders have not so far proved to be a major factor in domestic political calculations, as even Netanyahu's political opponents say they do not believe his legal troubles would affect his decision-making on security matters.

Irish Independent

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