IN THE WORLD of Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, his own preliminary indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, announced on February 28th, is nothing but a witch-hunt. Closet leftists in the deep state plot against him. The supreme court sacrifices Jewish values on the altar of universal ones. The generals running against him in the election are in cahoots with Arabs who want to destroy Israel. Journalists are trying to “lynch” him, and purvey “fake news”.
Sounds familiar? Mr Netanyahu is in many ways the prototype of the anti-establishment populist, rising to power long before Donald Trump in America, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and the Five Star Movement in Italy. Unlike them, Mr Netanyahu has been in office so long that he is, in fact, the establishment.
He has served as prime minister for 13 years, nearly matching the record of David Ben-Gurion, the father of modern Israel. Mr Netanyahu appointed the police chief who investigated him and the attorney-general who decided to indict him, pending a hearing; all three generals in the new Blue and White opposition party either served under him or were appointed by him.
The fact that such a dominant sitting prime minister has been charged is a tribute to the resilience of Israel’s institutions. A previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and a former president, Moshe Katsav, have served time in jail for corruption and rape respectively.
But Mr Netanyahu refuses to go. He will not resign and still hopes to be re-elected. He helped engineer an electoral pact with the hitherto untouchable far-right Jewish Power group, which calls for the annexation of the occupied territories and “encouraging” all Arabs to emigrate. His Likud party made an eleventh-hour petition to the High Court seeking to have the indictment delayed until after the election on April 9th, even though it is Mr Netanyahu who brought forward the ballot to try to forestall the indictment; the plea was thrown out. By clinging on, Mr Netanyahu is undermining the democracy that makes Israel shine in a region of violence and oppression.
The charges against Mr Netanyahu stem from three investigations (see article). In Case 1000, he is accused of accepting expensive gifts from rich patrons in return for political favours. In Case 2000, he told a newspaper publisher that he would curb a competitor in exchange for positive coverage. In Case 4000, the most serious, he is alleged to have intervened in regulatory decisions on behalf of Bezeq, a telecoms giant, in return for favourable treatment on its Walla! news website. Mr Netanyahu and his devotees say all this is bogus; the charges will collapse like “a house of cards”. The gifts were from friends and no favours were traded; the effort to gain positive coverage is what all politicians do. Leftist enemies, they claim, are abusing the legal system to bring down a prime minister they cannot defeat at the ballot box.
Mr Netanyahu is indeed a remarkable politician. He has won three straight elections (and four overall). Israel’s high-tech economy has flourished on his watch. He has avoided outright war in Syria (but waged one in Gaza in 2014). He has forged closer ties with Arab states and other countries that once shunned Israel. Under Mr Trump, America recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and withdrew from Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. But Mr Netanyahu has also eroded Israeli democracy. Without any move towards Palestinian statehood, the occupation of the West Bank takes on a permanence, and thus looks ever more like apartheid. Within Israel, he has promoted Jewish chauvinism, painted Arab parties as fifth columnists and spread the mistrust of state institutions.
How different he is from Menachem Begin, a founder of Likud. When Israel’s highest court ruled against a plan to build a settlement in the West Bank in 1979, Mr Begin responded stoically: “There are judges in Jerusalem.” Mr Netanyahu’s view, it seems, is “curse the judges”. When Mr Olmert faced indictment he stepped down in 2009, urged on by Mr Netanyahu, who declared that a prime minister “sunk up to his neck in investigations” could not effectively run the country.
It is time for Mr Netanyahu to take his own advice. If he will not resign, his coalition allies should force him to go. And if they will not do so, Israel’s voters should use the ballot box to punish them. Israel’s democracy is bigger than any politician, even one of Mr Netanyahu’s talent.