Will cronyism lead to Netanyahu’s downfall?

A day does not go by without exposés in the media that cast further doubt on both his judgement and his personal character

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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It would be rather extraordinary if the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could stay in office or escape indictment, if only even half of the recent allegations against him are proven true.

A day does not go by without exposés in the print and electronic media that cast further doubt on both his judgement and his personal character. The most recent allegations suggest behaviour that ranges from sheer decadence to what seems to be a dangerous abuse of power in order to consolidate and prolong his stay in power.

Stories about the Netanyahu’s taste for the good life on the verge of profligacy, have been circulating since his first term as prime minister back in the late 1990s. His habit of consuming expensive cigars and of his wife’s apparent liking of high-end pink champagne, might have escaped public interest had these indulgences not been allegedly presents from wealthy businessmen friends with economic interests in Israel.

What makes these allegations a source of police investigation is that some of these economic interests fall directly under Netanyahu’s ministerial responsibilities. It is also the expense of these presents, to the tune of more than $100, 000 over the years, which raises suspicion among even of the most impartial of observers.

It suggests more than just a gesture of good friendship and helping the couple to alleviate their daily stress from a very demanding job through drinking and smoking. Even if this affair does not lead to prosecution, in a country with more than a fifth of the population living under the poverty line, including third of the country’s children, this excess may be regarded as insensitive and repugnant. It is further evidence of a politician who is detached from the daily lives of his country’s citizens and has been in power for way too long.

Yet, this scandal pales in comparison to the more surprising revelations arising from a conversation, initiated and recorded by Netanyahu, with his sworn enemy Arnon (Noni) Mozes, the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronth daily and Ynet.

According to what has been published so far in the Israeli press, the transcript of this meeting suggests that the two discussed that in exchange for the newspaper refraining from taking an overly critical stance against Netanyahu, the latter would abuse his position to allow for the newspaper to increase its market share.

Certainly all involved are presumed innocent until proven otherwise, but even if there is only a grain of truth to this story, it can only be regarded as a blatant attempt by a political leader to exchange favours with a business enterprise, an action which conveys corruption at its very core. For the unsuspecting wider public that has witnessed open hostilities between these two protagonists for the past year, this is quite an astonishing turn of events.

His fall from grace and power may be the result of personal failures relating to hedonism on the one hand, and his paranoia over the way he is treated by the media on the other, instead of resulting from his failed premiership

Yossi Mekelberg

The existence of the recording was revealed only last week, exposing that these two gentlemen’s conversations oscillated from recrimination and threats to tantalising each other with favours. The crux of their feud is a struggle between an economic empire, trying to preserve its market share in the media business, and a prime minister who in his quest to stay in power as long as possible seems to have lost a sense of purpose and with it his moral compass.

For the Mozes family, who owns this massive media conglomerate dating back to the 1930s, releasing all brakes to pulverize Netanyahu was more a matter of economic self-interest rather than driven by a robust ideology.

Unless Netanyahu supported a bill that would end the free distribution of competitor newspaper, Israel Hayom, which is Netanyahu’s mouthpiece financed by his American billionaire supporter Sheldon Adelson, the battle between that two would continue.

Ostensibly Netanyahu was happy to sacrifice Israel Hayom for the sake of Mozes’ and his media outlet’s support. Both are coming out of this story as not exactly motivated by the greater good for their country but as self-serving, and having potentially crossed the line of legality.

Bearing in mind that neither the political system nor the media are held in high esteem in Israel, these exposures are a hammer blow to the reputation and trust in these two crucial institutions. This situation will worsen if there is an indictment or a conviction in court of justice.

One political storm after another

In the eleven years of his premiership, over the last 20 years, the Netanyahus encountered an ample number of embarrassing allegations ranging from very bizarre of behavior to the most recent that suggested compromising the good of the country for the sake of his and his cronies’ vested interests. For all these years they managed to ride one political storm after another, many of which suggested that the Israeli prime minister cannot tell the difference between his private matters and ones of the state.

Yet, interestingly enough his fall from grace and power may be the result of personal failures relating to hedonism on the one hand, and his paranoia over the way he is treated by the media on the other, instead of resulting from his failed premiership.

Had he harnessed all his efforts to improve the lives of ordinary Israeli citizens, and not only his own, and dare I say, advanced peace with the Palestinians, he would have enjoyed wider public support regardless of the media’s position.

It would be naïve to expect Netanyahu to relinquish power quietly and accept that time is up for him in government. Unless there is an indictment he will most likely fight for his political survival and freedom.

He does not belong to those who repent or apologize that easily, and he and his allies know that there is far from a ready-made alternative either in opposition, coalition or even in his own party. Nevertheless, one has a hunch that this is one scandal too many, even for the greatest survivor in Israeli politics.

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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