For Israel’s Netanyahu, a legal net tightens and talk turns to an agile political survivor’s possible demise

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 30, 2017.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 30, 2017.
(Amir Cohen / Pool Photo)

It has all the hallmarks of a classic political scandal: a combative leader’s forceful denials, family members and intimates caught up in burgeoning but slow-moving investigations, prosecutors leaning on a tarnished former aide with tales to tell, arcane legal arguments over power and its limits.

The setting is Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, viewed by foes and admirers alike as a consummate political survivor, faces the growing prospect of criminal charges that could ultimately dislodge him.

Even in a country where scandal is a near-constant backdrop to daily life and a notably high tolerance for political chaos is the national norm, there’s a sense that this long-brewing crisis has reached a crucial juncture.

Authorities are still building a case or cases against the prime minister, and legal experts say the filing of charges could still be months away. But events of recent days, analysts say, have dramatically heightened the eventual likelihood of an unprecedented public spectacle: the indictment of a sitting Israeli prime minister, the longest-serving since founding father David Ben-Gurion.


Last week, police stated formally for the first time that Netanyahu was suspected of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Then bombshell news broke: the prime minister’s Los Angeles-born former chief of staff Ari Harow, a onetime close confidant of the prime minister, had turned state’s witness to avoid jail time on charges stemming from his business dealings.

This week came reports that the attorney general would soon announce a separate indictment against the first lady, Sara Netanyahu, over alleged misuse of government funds. And the Supreme Court ruled that the prime minister would have to disclose logs of phone calls with senior executives of the pro-government newspaper Israel Hayom, founded and financed by U.S. billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.

Across the political spectrum, newspaper headlines not only sounded a common theme, but employed nearly identical wording. “How long might it take Netanyahu to go?” the conservative Jerusalem Post asked Tuesday. “How long can Netanyahu continue to serve?” echoed the left-leaning Haaretz.

Netanyahu’s defenders maintain that Israeli law does not explicitly state that he would have to step down, even if charged with serious criminal offenses. But in practical terms, serving out a term scheduled to last until 2019 while contesting accusations in court would be immensely complicated and difficult.

Sensing opportunity, a number of ostensible political allies in his hard-right governing coalition have begun positioning themselves as potential successors.

Netanyahu’s coalition chief, David Bitan, has been pushing government ministers to be more vehement in their defense of the boss; a political cartoon showed him holding a gun to their heads and exhorting: “With more feeling!”

Declared rivals inside and outside Netanyahu’s party include political up-and-comer Gideon Saar, who had already been expected to challenge him for the Likud leadership, and ex-Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose centrist party has been rising in the polls.

The potential charges against the prime minister, according to a roundup by the newspaper Haaretz, primarily stem from two separate investigations. At least one involves acceptance of luxury-themed gifts such as fine cigars, champagne and jewelry from wealthy Netanyahu backers including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for favors.


Another probe centers on allegations that the prime minister sought to make a deal to cut the circulation potential of Israel Hayom, the Adelson-founded paper, in exchange for more positive coverage in a rival newspaper.

At 67, after decades in the public eye, the Israeli leader is known to many Americans. During U.S. visits, he dispenses eloquent speeches and punchy interview quips in the smoothly colloquial, American-accented English he picked up during long stays in the country as a young boy, a college student, then a businessman and a diplomat.

He famously feuded with President Obama; in May, he was an expansively genial host when President Trump visited Jerusalem, showering his American visitor with praise.

That visit provided an opportunity to air some shared grudges as well as points of pride. Sara Netanyahu was caught on a hot microphone telling the U.S. first lady, Melania Trump: “The majority of the people in Israel — unlike the media — they love us!” and adding: “We have something in common.”


Amid the gathering legal storm, Netanyahu, who vehemently denies any wrongdoing, initially sought to present an unruffled image. In a Facebook video last week — a favored means of communing with the public — he dismissed the investigations as “background noise.”

But by this week, Israeli news reports had him lashing out furiously in closed-door talks with members of his coalition, insisting he would not be toppled and warning his ministers not to undermine him. Echoing tactics that have served him in previous political battles, the prime minister moved to portray attacks on him as a broader attempt to undermine Israel’s right wing.

Netanyahu often rallies his base — and it is a stridently loyal one — by whipping up fear of a common enemy. The prime minister drew cries of racism in 2015 with an ominous election-day warning that Arab citizens of Israel were flocking to the polls “in droves” to vote against him.

In an echo of that, he posted on Facebook on Monday a headline from a right-wing newspaper that described Palestinian officials as rejoicing at the prospect of him being ejected from office.


“Won’t happen,” he wrote beside it.

Netanyahu’s predicament has drawn inevitable comparisons to that of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who resigned as prime minister when his indictment on corruption charges was imminent. He was released from jail in June after serving 16 months of a 27-month sentence.

The prime minister’s backers have called the investigations a witch hunt, and one of his Cabinet ministers, Tzachi Hanegbi — who himself weathered a perjury conviction in 2010 — said it was too soon to rush to judgment.

“At this stage, by law, every Israeli citizen, and certainly the prime minister, must be presumed completely innocent,” he told Israel Radio.


Among Israelis, there is a keen awareness of Netanyahu’s proven ability to bounce back from reversals, even the most crushing ones. In 1999, after a high-profile start as the youngest prime minister in Israeli history, he quit politics after a humiliating defeat at the polls by his former army commander Ehud Barak. But a decade later, he was prime minister again.

Some Israeli commentators have taken an almost Shakespearean — or biblical — view of Netanyahu’s travails, deeming him blessed with cleverness but cursed by an excess of pride.

Analyzing elements of his public and private life is something of a national parlor game: the stern and forbidding late father, the historian Benzion Netanyahu; the hero’s death of the favored older brother, Yonatan, in the daring 1976 Entebbe raid to free Israeli hostages held in Uganda by hijackers; Netanyahu’s three marriages; his self-destructive behavior even in moments of triumph.

“He learned nothing from the fall of his predecessor,” wrote Haaretz columnist Yossi Verter in a piece that read as much like an obituary as a current-affairs commentary.


“He behaved foolishly and carelessly while losing all restraints, morality and his grip on things. The wisdom is still there, but his flawed personality and long years in power, his sense of entitlement, his confidence that he would remain prime minister as long as he wanted to, led him on a twisted path.”

Special correspondent Tarnopolsky reported from Tel Aviv and Times staff writer King from Washington.

Twitter: @laurakingLAT