PETER RODGERS: Alive in Israel – the ghost of Richard Nixon?

Are we watching the end of the Netanyahu era? The Prime Minister opted for an early election but then had serious charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust levelled at him by Israel’s Attorney General. Netanyahu’s response was straight out of Trump’s playbook, he’d rather trash the place than admit fault. That all lies with the ‘Bolshevik’ media and its fellow travellers.

Here’s a taste of that so-called ‘Bolshevik’ media:

‘We have to get used to the idea: Netanyahu will be brought to justice. He will sit in the defendant’s box. If he’s convicted of only some of the crimes attributed to him, he’ll go to prison. The attorney general called out Netanyahu: corrupt and corrupting, rotten and baneful.’

‘…[T]wo years of meticulous investigation, carried out by the police and overseen by the state prosecution, has produced devastating evidence of a protracted campaign by the prime minister to subvert a large section of Israel’s free media, and of illicit intervention by the prime minister to benefit complicit media moguls. [O]n Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a danger to Israeli democracy … the verdict is tragically in. And it is guilty.’

As late as December 2018, it all looked rather different. With the Likud party (if not Netanyahu personally) doing well in the polls, the Israeli economy performing well, no strong electoral rivals, and a possible runaway legal train coming down the track, Netanyahu conveniently brought forward the poll date from November 2019. He would only need to last only few months to become Israel’s longest-ever serving Prime Minister.

Then the Attorney General, Avichai Mendelblit, announced his draft indictment. It was, according to the Netanyahu script, all a terrible conspiracy with Mendelblit, (who, incidentally, served for three years as Netanyahu’s Cabinet Secretary) a weak-minded stooge of the left.

‘For the first time in Israel’s history, a [criminal] hearing process was launched a few days before elections … Everyone can see that the timing is scandalous, intended to topple the right and help the left rise to power. There’s no other explanation for the insistence on this timing. This is their purpose, to flood the public with ridiculous charges against me without giving me the opportunity to disprove the charges until after the elections.’

Do the allegations make for a game-changing election? Possibly. Certainly it’s made one in which the daily swirl of events in the Middle East: the tease of Jarrod Kushner’s long-delayed plan on behalf of the Trump administration for Israeli-Palestinian peace; uncertainty about Iraq, Syria, ISIS; the increasingly authoritarian reality of Erdogan’s Turkey; Arab and Israeli anxiety about Iranian ambitions and the related human and political catastrophe that is Yemen, have taken a back seat. Netanyahu will rail, Trump-like, about fake news and the media. He will thump the security drum. But this election is now shaped as much as anything else by questions of character, morality, and democratic practice.

Netanyahu’s main political challenge comes from the newly minted Kahol Lavan (‘Blue and White Party’), a merger of three centrist groups. Two of them are led by erstwhile Netanyahu allies: Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid (‘There is a future’) came second in the 2013 election and joined with the Likud under Netanyahu; Moshe Ya’alon, a former defence minister under Netanyahu who resigned from the Likud in 2017 and registered his party, Telem (‘National Statesman-like Movement’) in January 2019. The third is Benny Gantz, a former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Force. Blue and White’s policy settings, such as they are, suggest a more moderate approach to the Palestinian issue. But the glue which binds its leaders together is their dislike of Netanyahu. If successful, under a rotation agreement Gantz would serve as PM for the first 2.5 years, Lapid the remaining 1.5 years of the four-year term.

The day after Mendelblit’s announcement of the draft indictment, polling put the centre-left parties slightly ahead of the right-wing block. But Netanyahu is a seasoned street-fighter and his Likud and coalition allies have rallied behind him. A notable exception is Benny Begin, a former minister who has had an on-off relationship both with the Knesset and Netanyahu. Following Netanyahu’s tirade against Mendelblit, Begin accused him of ‘attempting to assassinate the public’s trust in law enforcement institutions’.

No tactics seem off limit for Netanyahu. Only recently, he engineered the merger of two tiny right-wing parties (and Likud supporters) to improve their chances of making the 3.25 per cent cut of the national vote to gain Knesset seats. One of those parties is Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), successor to the vile racist and extreme nationalist views of the Kach Party which was outlawed in Israel in the 1980s and placed on the US list of terrorist groups in the late 1990s. Conservative Jewish voices in both Israel and the US have rightly described the party’s views as Nazi-like and reprehensible.

If he is re-elected, one of Netanyahu’s priorities will likely involve pushing a law through the Knesset that prevents a sitting Prime Minister being put on trial. Earlier attempts to get the law passed have failed and there is no certainty that it will succeed, especially if it applies retrospectively. It is an issue ready-made for grubby deal-making.

As the election campaign heated up, the UN Human Rights Council in late February released its report into Israeli-Palestinian clashes in Gaza in mid-2018, in which nearly 200 Palestinians were killed. It concluded that Israel ‘acted in violation of international humanitarian law’. That would not have come as news to anyone and responses to the report were depressingly predictable. Israel castigated the UN and its bodies as mouthpieces for Israeli-haters, Israel’s critics bemoaned Israel’s contempt for international law. The US and Australia had signalled their disdain at the outset, voting against the setting up the enquiry at all. The report will play no part in the election. Undoubtedly, it would have been a very different story, domestically and internationally, had 200 Israelis been killed.

Peter Rodgers is a former Australian Ambassador to Israel who was also an award-winning journalist. He has written two books on the Middle East (Herzl’s Nightmare: one land, two peoples; Arabian Plights – the future Middle East)

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