Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is no stranger to controversy. Prime Minister since 2009, and before that from 1996 to 1999, the man affectionately called “Bibi” by his supporters has remained a divisive figure since his early involvement in Israeli politics. An investment banker and special forces commando, Netanyahu's leadership of the conservative Likud Party has been marked by his strong advocacy for Israeli security concerns and his controversial remarks regarding Israel’s Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, Netanyahu has managed to weather numerous political challenges, and has survived lukewarm relations with some US leaders, and an extended period in the Israeli political wilderness to remain the primary force in Israeli politics. No conversation that involves Israel is complete without considering Netanyahu, and his influence over US policy in the Middle East appears stronger than ever. However, a host of corruption accusations by the Israeli national police have challenged this seemingly impervious image.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has faced corruption allegations periodically since first assuming office in 1996. The announcement on February 11th of two unrelated graft investigations, and recommendation of indictment for both, is the most serious challenge to date. While previous accusations of corruption and graft have been lobbed by political opponents and independent watchdogs, this is the first that has been issued by law enforcement authorities. Both cases, which accuse the Prime Minister accepting a total of over $300,000 in total, cast a harsh light on Netanyahu’s close personal and political relationship with Israeli business interests.
One case, referred to as “Case 1000”, suggests political payoffs from several wealthy businessmen in return for favors and tax favorable tax breaks, may prove to be his undoing with his conservative middle class base. One example described by the police involved the granting of tax exemptions that to benefit Israeli movie producer Arnon Milchan. Even more damaging might be the description of the bribes received by the Prime Minister and his family, which include luxury cigars, alcohol and caviar. In response to public outrage over the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by his family, Netanyahu affirmed his sole motivation was Israel’s welfare; “You know I do everything with only one thing in mind — the good of the country,” he said. “Not for cigars from a friend, not for media coverage, not for anything. Only for the good of the state. Nothing has made me deviate, or will make me deviate, from this sacred mission.”
Another accusation, which alleges that Netanyahu’s administration attempt to gain positive coverage with Israel's largest newspaper, is just as damning. Police allege in “Case 2000” that conversations between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, the owner of one of leading Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, provide evidence of collusion between the two. Yedioth is seen as being generally critical of the Prime Minister and Likud. The conversation allegedly shows Netanyahu offering to limit the circulation of Yedioth Ahronoth's major competitor the Sheldon Adelson-owned Israel Hayom, a right-wing newspaper seen as favoring Netanyahu, in exchange for more favorable coverage. That Netanyahu would conspire against a publication that supports him is strange, but if there’s any truth to the accusation, it seems likely to alienate many of his most ardent supporters.
All accusations are denied by Netanyahu himself as well as allies. However, on February 21st it was reported that close Netanyahu aid and communications minister Schlomo Filber had agreed to turn state's witness against the embattled leader. A close confidante and ally of Netanyahu, Filber reportedly alleges Netanyahu’s direct knowledge of and involvement in the newspaper bribery case. As the first time that a key insider in the Administration has corroborated corruption accusations, Filber’s plea deal has not only added credibility to the charges against Netanyahu, but also indicates that the Prime Minister’s dominance may have waned.
The last year has seen several long term leaders unseated. While the authoritarian leader of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe was unseated by a combination of military and political pressure, perhaps even more shocking was President of South Africa Jacob Zuma’s announcement that he would resign the Presidency in the face of mounting political pressure. Like Netanyahu, Zuma was elected in 2009 as was a national powerhouse who nonetheless courted controversy. Zuma’s unapologetic personal promotion and control over the ANC despite continuous accusations of corruption and several criminal charges was criticized by many. Despite this, Zuma dominated his party and South Africa, making him and the country at large virtually synonymous. This level of control is similar to that Netanyahu, until recently, wielded in Israel. In turn Zuma’s ouster in the face of low popularity, corruption allegations and a party unwilling to support him may herald Netanyahu’s fate.
With such prominent leaders falling left and right, Netanyahu’s fate seems more and more in question. However, it would be irresponsible to forget that all accusations against Netanyahu to date are just that: accusations. As of yet the Attorney General has not handed down any indictments, and both the Netanyahu and those alleged to have participated in corruption have claimed innocence. Other supporters have downplayed the seriousness of the Prime Ministers actions, arguing that such luxury items are in keeping with the lifestyle maintained by all national leaders. Perhaps it is true that figures of prominence must maintain a certain image, and by no means must the Netanyahu’s live a spartan existence or promote frugality. Yet, it cannot be denied that the charges against Netanyahu are damning; they portray a man willing to use the nations tax code to win luxurious gifts and use his offices power to fraudulently win praise from the press. If true, it paints a picture of a man who, unlike his carefully cultivated conservative image, is willing to place personal pleasure above the national good. If the facts presented by the police are true then both deserve to see the light of the courtroom, and if the accusations prove true then the Israeli people deserve better.