Middle East

Israeli PM sheds statesmanlike persona as scandals mount

With a slew of corruption scandals closing in on him, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is dropping what remains of his statesmanlike persona in favor of an angry nationalism that’s popular with his base.

Casting himself as an innocent outsider, the long-serving prime minister blames Israel’s old guard “elites” for the array of inquiries into his financial conduct. He has been lashing out against the media and an all-powerful “left wing” for supposedly conducting a witch-hunt against him, while associates have taken to sniping at the court system and police as well.

Recent days’ headlines have been dominated by arrests of Netanyahu confidants, a court ruling forcing him to reveal phone records, leaks from inside the investigation and indications that his wife Sara will be indicted for fraud.

With each new complication Netanyahu seems to grow more bellicose.

Last week he visited a West Bank settlement and vowed never to evacuate any settlements on occupied land — his latest indication of backing off from a past pledge to pursue a two-state solution to the long conflict with the Palestinians. “We have returned here for eternity,” he said. At his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, Netanyahu pledged new roads and other infrastructure projects for the settlements.

Netanyahu has also pledged to expel tens of thousands of African migrants who managed to enter illegally before Israel fortified its border with Egypt several years ago. At the Cabinet meeting, he spoke at length about the supposed suffering of residents of south Tel Aviv who live in poor neighborhoods alongside a large population of African migrants. He even visited the neighborhood twice — including an undercover mission that allowed him to view conditions firsthand.

“We have already removed some 20,000 illegal infiltrators, whose place is not here,” he said. “The suffering is unbelievable and the future implications of the burden on the state of Israel … require action now.”

His comments were triggered by a Supreme Court ruling last week that Israel could not indefinitely incarcerate migrants to pressure them to leave, and a resulting uproar among some nationalists.

Netanyahu also held a boisterous rally recently at which he lashed out at the “fake news industry,” apparently borrowing a page from U.S. President Donald Trump, with whom he is close.

Though he has dismissed the suspicions against him as “background noise,” they have piled up at a dizzying pace.

The first investigation reportedly concerns allegations he improperly accepted lavish gifts from wealthy supporters, including Australian billionaire James Packer and Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. A second investigation reportedly concerns Netanyahu’s alleged attempts to strike a deal with publisher Arnon Mozes of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper group to promote legislation to weaken its main competitor in exchange for more favorable coverage.

Netanyahu has been questioned in these cases, and police say they suspect him of being involved in bribery, fraud and breach of trust. One of his closest former aides has become a state’s witness against him.

Another investigation has engulfed his close associates and dominated news in Israel. The probe relates to a possible conflict of interest involving a $2 billion purchase of German submarines. Netanyahu’s personal attorney, who is also his cousin, represented the German firm involved and is suspected of trading his influence over the prime minister in return for a hefty cut of the deal. A former Cabinet minister and top former navy and security officials have been questioned by police.

Erel Margalit, a lawmaker from the opposition Labor Party who has traveled to Germany on his own to investigate the submarine case, said Netanyahu should have resigned already and claimed the prime minister’s “combative” behavior toward public institutions was damaging to the country’s democracy.

“He has been doing things that are creating smoke screens and noise to take people’s eyes off the criminal issues,” he said. “It is very worrying because it implies or suggests that he is carrying out this kind of behavior because of his personal issues against the state.”

In another embarrassing blow, a court forced Netanyahu to reveal the number of phone conversations he held over the years with his political patron, American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, and the former editor of Adelson’s pro-Netanyahu newspaper, Israel Hayom.

The disclosure of the dozens of phone calls has raised suspicions that Netanyahu himself was dictating headlines and the paper’s overall editorial bent — another potential legal complication.

Over the weekend, police arrested a former chief of staff suspected of accepting bribes, fraud, breach of trust and conspiracy. According to one report, Netanyahu’s wife Sara is headed toward an indictment for fraud regarding their household expenses.

His Likud party and coalition partners are sticking with him for now, and his public approval ratings remain largely unchanged, despite virulent opposition from many on the left. Unless he is indicted, he is unlikely to face any serious demands to step down.

But Yoaz Hendel, a former spokesman for Netanyahu, said the prime minister is feeling the pressure and is now turning to his base.

“Netanyahu was always above the fray and maintained a statesmanlike appearance,” said Hendel. “This is the fight of his life and that can rattle anyone, especially someone like him with a historical perception of himself.”

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