It has become very clear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been playing all of his cards in order to remain in office and avoid the fate of his predecessor Ehud Olmert, who ended up in prison for corruption. Although acquitted on two charges, Olmert was found guilty of a third and sentenced to six years in prison; he was also fined 1 million shekels ($290,000) for bribery. After appealing against the sentence, it was reduced to 18 months, of which he spent only 16 months in prison after being released early for good behaviour.
According to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Netanyahu is to be charged with criminal wrongdoing in three separate cases, including bribery, fraud and breach of trust. If Olmert was sentenced to six years in prison for bribery, 69-year-old Netanyahu sees himself potentially spending the rest of his life in prison, so he and his allies are doing everything possible to avoid such a fate.
Even with a reduced prison sentence, as Olmert was granted, the Israeli Prime Minister knows very well that Israeli law prevents politicians from returning to parliament for seven years if sentenced to three months or more in prison for a crime viewed by the courts as “moral turpitude”. His political career could well be almost over.
In March, Bezalel Smotrich MK, a senior member of the Union of Right Wing Parties and chair of the National Union faction, submitted a bill that would give lawmakers increased powers to block charges against sitting members of parliament, including the sitting prime minister. A couple of months later, Miki Zohar MK proposed a bill which would ensure that Netanyahu and any other MK would by default be granted immunity from prosecution unless the Knesset House Committee voted to strip the lawmaker of that right.
Netanyahu, who accused Israel’s Arab citizens of endangering the country’s political right during the 2015 Knesset election campaign — “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls,” he said in a video uploaded on Facebook — has recently appealed to them for sympathy and support by trying to form an alliance with the 10 Arab MKs elected in April. His supporters have published articles in newspapers such as Haaretz and Makor Rishon to cast the Arab-Israels as the great hope of the right.
“Netanyahu was willing to give the Arabs many of his prized possessions,” wrote Israeli writer Ben Caspit, “in return… for their backing [of] the minority government he would form.” Caspit noted that this “chaotic” and “bizarre” scenario did not go ahead. Nevertheless, he has described Netanyahu as the best campaigner in Israel’s history. “He could invite Chinese President Xi Jinping for a historic visit to Israel, engineer another photo-op with Russian President Vladimir Putin and even drag his ‘secret weapon’ President Donald Trump, to Israel” in order to promote his views ahead of the date of the possible snap election.
The traditionally very conservative traditions of the Israeli right wing were shaken last month when Netanyahu appointed the openly gay Amir Ohana MK, 43, as Minister of Justice. This was criticised by the gay community who called it a “fig leaf” because it will never make any real change in right-wing policy, and was slammed by others for being “designed to save Netanyahu from indictment.”
Earlier this week, as part of his attempts to use his connections with the US President for his own political benefit, the Israeli leader hosted two of Donald Trump’s senior advisors on the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt and Ambassador David Friedman, at the inauguration of what is called the “pilgrims’ road” which runs beneath Palestinian homes in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Netanyahu might go further to save his political life. He knows very well that launching an offensive on Gaza would not be a great success militarily, but he would play this card as a last resort to boost his “strongman” image. If he does, then the attack will probably be fiercer than previous offensives, with even more war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out with impunity to persuade Israeli voters to back him in September’s General Election.
The Palestinians have long been an election card used by Israeli politicians, and Netanyahu is no different. He will kill as many as necessary if it means that he can stay on as Israel’s Prime Minister. In a real democracy, of course, his political career would have been dead and buried long ago, but this is Israel, and normal democratic rules don’t apply, which is why he is still in office.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.