The 'Sun King' rules Israel

The 'Sun King' rules Israel

In-depth: Corruption-suspect Benjamin Netanyahu is taking increasingly drastic steps to avoid the long arm of the law. But his voters are still supporting him, reports Roger Hercz.

4 min read
29 November, 2017
Netanyahu is currently being investigated by police [Getty]
Never before has Israel had a prime minister so immersed in corruption scandals. Police are now investigating three major cases involving billions of dollars.

Feeling the heat of the fire, Netanyahu is now taking dramatic steps to survive. This week the government moved to change a law in order to conceal from the Israeli public what kind of legal conclusions the police might arrive at.

According to the new law, police investigators will not be allowed to disclose if they think Netanyahu should be brought to court. Their conclusion must quietly be forwarded to the prosecuting authorities, which then must make their decision. There are indeed several arguments for such a new law. But the motive for the change is clear to all - an attempt to protect the prime minister.


The opposition fumes over the support given by parliamentarians from the ruling Likud party to their prime minister. "You are like members of the mafia who will do anything to defend their boss," Labor Party politician Eitan Kabel said on Israeli radio.
Netanyahu may yet end up in jail, and it will not be the first time that an Israeli leader is brought behind bars
Netanyahu may yet end up in jail, and it will not be the first time that an Israeli leader is brought behind bars.

His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was sentenced to six years in prison for lesser crimes than those of which Netanyahu stands accused. A former president and a former finance minister have also been in prison. But this will be the first time an Israeli leader has allegedly tried to undermine state institutions, including the police, in order to ensure his political survival.

The suspicions against Netanyahu are overwhelming: In one case, he is suspected of receiving gifts worth several hundred thousand dollars from rich financiers - including Arnon Milchan, the former Israeli nuclear spy and billionaire producer of the movies Pretty Woman, Fight Club and Natural Born Killers, among many, many others.

In another case, Netanyahu and the owner of the country's largest newspaper, Yedioth Aharonoth, reportedly negotiated exchanging positive press coverage for Netanyahu for new and favourable financial terms for the newspaper.

In the third case, practically everyone in the prime minister's inner circle, apart from the prime minister himself, have already been declared suspects. Last year, Netanyahu, despite the Ministry of Defence's own recommendation, decided Israel should buy three submarines from the German yard ThyssenKrupp for a value of more than $1.5 billion.

Netanyahu's advisers and lawyers are suspected of having pocketed large amounts in order to push through the purchase, though no one so far has been willing to testify against Netanyahu himself.

Despite the many corruption charges, support for the prime minister does not seem to have been weakened significantly among his own voters.

Netanyahu is the strongest leader we have. No one else will manage to keep it all together


"Netanyahu is the strongest leader we have. No one else will manage to keep it all together," says 67-year-old Sheleg Yaacov, a retired taxi driver from the town of Or Akiva.

"The corruption scandals are only about politics, that his opponents want to topple him. But it's the voters, not the police which should decide who's our prime minister."

Yaacov's two friends, sitting around an outdoor table, nodded their heads in agreement.

Or Akiva is a relatively poor city in northern Israel, inhabited mainly by Jewish immigrants from North Africa and the former Soviet Union. While Netanyahu surrounds himself with the rich men of the world, the prime minister has still managed to convince Israel's poor that he is an authentic representative of their aspirations.

But why do the voters stand by him despite the revelations? "He justifies and legitimises all their fears and hate," explains Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat and a peace negotiator.

"They hate the elites, the police, the Supreme Court, the left and the Arabs - and with Netanyahu, all this is ok," he told The New Arab.

They hate the elites, the police, the Supreme Court, the left and the Arabs - and with Netanyahu, all this is ok

However, elections are not around the corner, so it is his own government coalition that still holds Netanyahu in power - now in his tenth year.

Strong self-interest among the government parties means that they want to avoid any new election that could follow Netanyahu's fall: The settlers of the occupied West Bank and their government supporters prefer Netanyahu, since he does everything in his power to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. Other parties want to avoid elections since they fear they stand to lose support.

Netanyahu's own Likud party has barely 30 seats in a parliament of 120 members, but his party is nevertheless the largest in a fragmented country.

Destroy the institutions

Critics fear Netanyahu will stop at nothing in order to keep his grip on power.

"Netanyahu has declared war against the country's institutions, including the police, because they threaten his power," says Pinkas, the former diplomat. "Netanyahu is like King Louis XIV of France - 'the Sun King' - he thinks he is the state.

"Netanyahu is willing to destroy Israel's state institutions in order to survive politically."

Roger Hercz is the Middle East correspondent of the Norwegian newspaper Dagsavisen