As corruption allegations mount against the Prime Minister, his air of invincibility has been punctured.
“It’s the Louis XIV syndrome. More than just saying that the state is him, his feeling and the feeling of those around him, is that the damage to the party and the country by his resigning would be so great that it’s worth doing things that would have been unthinkable were it anyone else.”
— Nahum Barnea, Israeli columnist for Yediot Ahronot
Israel is famously low on pomp and circumstance. Attend an Israeli wedding and guests are likely to appear in jeans, with sunglasses perched on their foreheads. When Donald Trump landed at Ben Gurion Airport last May, the Israeli government tried to keep it stately — red carpet, military orchestra — but it wasn’t long before a member of the ruling Likud Party whipped out his cell phone and snapped a selfie with the American President on the tarmac. So minimal is the ceremoniousness that, whenever it exists, it tends to take on outsized meaning.
One such ceremony took place on Monday, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Trump in the Oval Office. Netanyahu tried to project an air of business as usual — the relationship between the United States and Israel “has never been better,” he gushed — even as Trump may have quickened the Israeli leader’s pulse by saying, nonchalantly, that “we have a shot” at “doing” peace with the Palestinians. But only one thing was on the mind of the travelling Israeli press corps. A reporter asked, “Prime Minister Netanyahu, would you like to comment about the latest news coming from Israel?”
“I will later,” Netanyahu replied quietly, maintaining a glued-on smile. It was a momentary exchange, imperceptible, perhaps, to American audiences, but not to Israelis who lately mine the Prime Minister’s every move for clues of what’s to come.
On February 13th, Netanyahu, citing poor weather conditions for the flying of his government-issued helicopter, abruptly scrapped plans to attend the opening of a rehabilitation facility in the northern city of Tiberias. Reports in the Israeli press later confirmed why. Netanyahu had learned that at 8:45 that evening, the police were set to issue their findings in two corruption investigations against him: one, called Case 1000, alleging that he had accepted bribes from two tycoons in the form of cigars, champagne, and jewelry for his wife, Sara; the other — Case 2000 — an investigation into whether he had colluded with the publisher of a major newspaper to receive favorable coverage, all of which he has vehemently denied. In a third corruption case, a former Netanyahu spokesman is alleged to have approached a judge in 2015 with a proposed deal: the judge would be named attorney general if she dropped a case against Netanyahu’s wife for misusing a hundred thousand dollars in public funds. (The Netanyahus have dismissed the charges as “absurd and unfounded,” and referred to the alleged offer to the judge as “hallucinatory.”)
The “news from Israel” that the reporter asked Netanyahu about as he met with the Trump were reports that the Prime Minister’s former spokesman, Nir Hefetz, had agreed to become the third former aide to coöperate with investigators and turn over recordings of Netanyahu and his wife in exchange for not standing trial. Hefetz’s coöperation could be the most significant development yet in the corruption cases surrounding Netanyahu.