If this is indeed the end of the line for Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarkable political life — and it’s a big if — it will be a fall from grace drenched in irony.
After all, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister cut his political teeth here in New York as the embattled country’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1984 to 1988. And a hasbara (public diplomacy) superstar he was. In the media capital of the world, the MIT-and Harvard-educated spokesperson and advocate for Israel had it all — flawless English and good looks that seemed tailor-made for television.
Netanyahu even had a bit of a swagger as he made the rounds on American TV, pressing Israel’s case as few before him had and getting the small country in a rough neighborhood some of its best press coverage. And he had a way with words, such as this from an October 1985 op-ed in The New York Times: “By now, it should be clear enough that the P.L.O. is not a political organization that dabbles in terrorism but a terror organization that dabbles in politics. As for the peace process, if it depends in any measure on the P.L.O., it will never lead to peace.”
Now he may be brought down from another attempt to influence the media — this, on allegations that he tried to bribe rich businessmen and media barons for nothing less than favorable press coverage.
Last week, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that Netanyahu, 70, was being indicted for alleged bribery, breach of trust and fraud. Under the law, he must now relinquish the four ministerial posts he holds: health, agriculture, social affairs and diaspora affairs. He does not have to give up his post as prime minister, and Mandelblit announced Monday that there are no legal grounds to force him to resign or take a leave of absence.
Under pressure from some in the Likud Party who challenged his continued leadership while indictments hang over his head, Netanyahu consented on Sunday to hold new leadership primaries within the next six weeks. This is the first serious challenge to Netanyahu’s leadership since Ariel Sharon left the party in 2005, leaving him as chairman.
“He managed to maintain discipline in the party” all these years, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “After a while, the knives come out. We’ll see what happens in the primary.”
Hoenlein said there is a chance the primary could be held within the next three weeks. The winner might then be able to form a new government, staving off the need for the third election in a year. But Mandelblit has not said whether Netanyahu — should he win the primary — would be permitted to form a new government.
The most serious charge Netanyahu faces is bribery. Known as Case 4000, it alleges that between 2012 and 2017 Netanyahu had a “quid pro quo” arrangement with Shaul Elovitch, the owner of a popular news website, Walla, and the largest shareholder of the telecommunications company Bezeq. In return for favorable coverage of him and his wife, Sara, Netanyahu allegedly used his political clout to help ease regulations in favor of Bezeq.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu allegedly received “a supply line of gifts” — primarily cigars and champagne valued at about $200,000 — from Amon Milchan, a film mogul, and Australian billionaire James Packer in exchange for such favors as lobbying U.S. officials to give Milchan a visa.
And in case 2000, Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust for an alleged agreement with Amon Mozes, the owner of Israel’s best-selling daily newspaper, Yediot Achronot: The prime minister would get more positive press coverage in return for limiting the free distribution of a rival newspaper, Israel HaYom, that was widely seen as pro-Netanyahu. He denies wrongdoing in all three graft cases.
The New York Years
In many ways Netanyahu, who is on his third go-round as prime minister, has always been a more admired figure in the diaspora than back home.
“I remember his time here in Washington, and I visited him at the United Nations several times,” recalled Tom Dine, then executive director of AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the primary lobbying group for Israel in the United States. “He was terrific. He really spoke out clearly and effectively from the vantage point of being the U.N. ambassador. … I thought that was his finest hour.”
Betty Ehrenberg, who was liaison officer at the Israeli Mission to the U.N. in 1984 when Netanyahu began his four-year stint there, said he was an “excellent” U.N. ambassador.
“He called out the U.N. for its unfair treatment of Israel, as well as other countries — especially Arab countries — that refused to countenance peaceful relations with Israel and were undermining Israel at the United Nations,” she said. “In addition, the Soviet Union was making great efforts to leverage anti-Israel sentiments at the U.N. — particularly those of Arab states. Every effort was made to besmirch Israel in the U.N.”
Ehrenberg said she remembers Netanyahu as being “very exacting and an extremely hard worker. He inspired all his coworkers to do their best for Israel in what was an antagonistic environment. And he was one of Israel’s most effective speakers at the United Nations. Many compared his effectiveness as a spokesman for Israel to Abba Eban,” who was Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. from 1950 to 1959.
Seymour Reich, who served as chairman of the Conference of Presidents from 1988 to 1990, agreed that Netanyahu was “a very effective spokesman at the U.N. He was a rallying cry for American Jewry, who felt harassed by the U.N. … Bibi [Netanyahu’s nickname] was articulate and very impressive. He had a different English than Abba Eban. Both spoke the language in a different way and were able to reach out to American Jews with the proper vernacular.”
Abraham Foxman, who became national director of the Anti-Defamation League in 1987, remembers Netanyahu as “effective, dynamic, young, brash and articulate. People paid attention when he spoke. He was on all kinds of platforms and he became an entity within the Jewish community. He knew the lingo, the slang and the culture. He did connect and he was available.”
Steven Bayme, who has been at the American Jewish Committee since 1982 and now is its director of Contemporary Jewish Life, said it was Netanyahu “who drew a moral clarity between Israel and terrorism. He wrote a book on terrorism [‘Terrorism: How the West Can Win’] and he argued that terrorism directed against Israel was indiscriminate, that it was against Israeli civilians and did not allow them to live in peace and security. In that way he shone a light on what terrorism represents. … His contribution here was enormous.”
Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York since 1986, said he was impressed by Netanyahu’s “command of the language. Every time he got up to a microphone, his eloquence fell very comfortably on American ears. He integrated American nuance into his speeches as well.”
But Netanyahu’s poise and polish abroad may also have distracted American Jews from how he was received at home, where he is variously seen as a masterful politician committed to protecting Israel from local and regional threats, on one hand, and an inflexible ideologue corrupted by his long hold on power, on the other.
“Look beneath the polished exterior and the fluid American-English delivery and you find an Israeli ideologue and a Jewish nationalist. Those are the deep parts of his personality and what motivates him as a politician,” Anshel Pfeffer, author of a recent biography of Netanyahu, told the Mideast journal Fathom. “He’s not half-American; he’s Israeli through and through, and in order to understand what makes Israel tick today you must understand who Netanyahu is and how he became the man he is.”
Hoenlein said that Netanyahu’s “talents remain, and hopefully he will have opportunities to use them because he has great assets.”