Benjamin Netanyahu: the magician loses his midas touch

The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is known for his liking for high-living and gifts from rich friends. That may now prove to be his downfall. Jane Lewis reports.

Benjamin Netanyahu has a strong claim to be one of the most significant figures in Israel’s history. After three consecutive terms in office, and one other before then, he will become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister ever in July 2019 if he stays in power, says Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times. “But there is now a big question mark over Netanyahu’s survival.”

Following a year-long probe, Israeli police have recommended charging him with “bribery, fraud and breach of trust” in two corruption cases: a gift-for-favours affair (known as case 1000) and a second scandal (case 2000) alleging backroom dealings with the publisher of newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth to ensure favourable coverage, says The New York Times.

Netanyahu is accused of accepting more than $300,000 in gifts over ten years from patrons, including Australian billionaire James Packer. According to police, “expensive cigars, jewellery and pink champagne flowed into the PM’s official Jerusalem residence in quantities that are sufficient to stock a small cocktail lounge”. Netanyahu has vigorously denied any wrongdoing.

Compared with some other Israeli politicians, “Bibi” (Netanyahu) isn’t particularly rich, says The Jerusalem Post. In 2015, Forbes put his fortune at $11m, “stemming primarily from public speaking fees and work as a strategic adviser”.

Still, stories about his high-living and propensity to accept gifts from rich friends are not new. He may succeed in preventing these charges from coming to court – but there are two potentially “far more explosive” cases in the pipeline, says The New York Times, including a $2bn deal for the purchase of submarines and missile ships from Germany, which critics have described as “perhaps the biggest corruption case in Israeli history”.

A hero brother

Born in Tel Aviv in 1949, the middle of three brothers all of whom served in Israeli commando units, Netanyahu moved to the US as a child when his father accepted an academic post, says Reuters. The turning point in his life came in 1976 when his older brother Yonatan became a national hero after he was killed leading an assault team to rescue hostages from a hijacked airliner in Entebbe, Uganda. Netanyahu set up an anti-terrorism institute in his brother’s memory and embarked on a career in public life.

His first term as prime minister in 1996 was a chaotic “shambles” and he was ousted in 1999, says The Times. But after a decade in the political wilderness he returned in style in 2009 and has held power ever since, earning the nickname “the magician” for his uncanny knack for political survival.

Relations with the US, under the presidency of Barack Obama, were tense, particularly following the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. But he has since found an ally in President Donald Trump, who has reversed decades of US foreign policy by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, despite Palestinian opposition, and taken a much tougher line on Iran.

“The Israeli state has an impressive record of holding the most powerful people in the country to account,” says the Financial Times. But many Israelis “may be reluctant to get rid of a leader with a reputation for toughness and experience” when the Middle East is in turmoil. Netanyahu is so proud of his relationship with Trump that he has a picture of the two of them shaking hands at the top of his Facebook page. “The political futures of both men now look curiously similar as they struggle to govern their countries while fending off tenacious investigators.”