Could a submarine deal sink Netanyahu’s premiership?

Throughout his time in office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been engulfed in allegations of apparent acts of corruption

Yossi Mekelberg

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Throughout his time in office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been engulfed in allegations of apparent acts of corruption and impropriety. His wife Sara’s erratic behaviour toward her staff working in the prime ministerial residence gained notoriety in the press and has already ended in employment tribunals, which she lost. This week, a new scandal hit the country as the attorney general ordered the opening of a preliminary investigation into the involvement of David Shimron - one of Netanyahu’s closest confidants, his private lawyer, and a relative - in a controversial deal to buy submarines and missile boats from the German company ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems. ThyssenKrupp was represented by Shimron’s client. These revelations are perturbing, even if there was no legal breech committed. The fact that a multi-million dollar arms deal, which the prime minister may have had an influence on, and which might potentially benefit someone in his very close circle makes one wary. Pocketing a commission on vessels that cost more than $300 million each is obviously very attractive, and the alleged involvement of one of the closest people to the prime minister is bad governance.

Maybe it is out of naiveté that by now anyone would be at all surprised by the Netanyahu’s’ behavior. For years the Netanyahu couple have treated the country as if they own it, and as if its people should accept any caprice they throw at them. Whether this specific investigation finds evidence of illegality or not, there is still the disturbing, well documented, close and unhealthy relations between the corridors of political power and the business world in Israel. In the past the State Comptroller was highly critical of expensive flights allegedly paid for the Netanyahu family by foreign businessmen.

After 10 years in power, seven of them consecutive since 2009, the government of Netanyahu is like a ship, or a submarine, without a captain

Yossi Mekelberg

One can only explain the behaviour of the Netanyahus as an extreme sense of entitlement that leads to an abuse of power. Mrs. Netanyahu has already been found culpable of “abusive” and “humiliating” treatment of a maintenance worker in their residence and was ordered to pay substantial damages. This was not an isolated case, and in a previous one the courts awarded another caretaker at their official home compensation for mistreatment, including verbal and emotional abuse at the hands of Mrs. Netanyahu. It was also reported that the police recommended that the Prime Minister’s wife stand trial for allegations of a misuse of public funds, receiving goods under false pretenses, falsifying documents and breach of trust.

Out of his depth

While the legal issues must be dealt with by law enforcement authorities, the wider issue is one of a prime minister who has been in power for way too long and is out of his depth in dealing with a single one of the acute challenges his country is facing. In his hunger to stay indefinitely in power, he leads a government that sees the law as no more than a mere suggestion, not an imperative that they must abide by. A telling example of this is the recent decision to legalise the outposts in the occupied West Bank. All Jewish settlements in the West Bank are illegal according to international law. Outposts, are makeshift settlements that are established without government approval and hence regarded even by the Israeli government as illegal. A bill, recently unanimously approved for legislation by a ministerial committee, would retroactively legalise these outposts in the West Bank. Interestingly enough, the decision was taken despite Netanyahu’s opposition and a warning by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit that he would not be able to defend it in the High Court of Justice. It will take a number of readings in the Knesset for the bill to become a law.

However, it is troubling that the justice minister was the one to advance a retroactive bill which endorses thuggish and illegal behavior, among it the confiscation of land from Palestinians. The prime minister’s protestation against the bill was less than convincing. His fainthearted objection may derive from weakness in face of the ultra-right Habyit Hayeudi party, which is part of his coalition government. Alternatively it may be due to a lack of sincerity in the first place, feigning sincerity in the face of the international community, while winking at the ultra-nationalists.

After 10 years in power, seven of them consecutive since 2009, the government of Netanyahu is like a ship, or a submarine, without a captain. No one exploits fragmented Israeli politics to stay in power better than Netanyahu, but even this master manipulator of a fragile political system is starting to show his vulnerabilities and errors in judgement. Parties within his own coalition lost respect for him, and are aware of his earlier attempts to change the configuration of the coalition at their expense. Consequently, their constant squabbling within the government may potentially lead to its collapse and new elections.

Netanyahu, even at his best, was never a man of great or creative ideas or possessing a long term vision and strategy. Yet, his ability to understand the domestic political terrain and take advantage of it has been second to none. Nobody has employed the politics of fear more cynically, yet effectively, than him to gain and sustain political power. Nevertheless, this opportunistic-populism combined with constant allegations of corruption, and the lack of direction on the issues at the heart of Israeli society, started to take their toll on him. When he finds himself criticized by the media he embarks on unrestrained and personal attacks on journalists, ignoring the substance of their allegations. He may stick around for sometime, but the signs of a prime minister in the twilight of his power are written on the wall for him. It presents an opportunity for those who opposed him to get their act together in preparation for the post-Netanyahu era.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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