Friendless in Jerusalem

Not since Watergate has a national leader been in as much trouble as Benjamin Netanyahu, but the parallels with Richard Nixon's travails go even deeper, argues Patrick Cockburn
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The Independent Online
The cliche finally came true. For 25 years almost every political scandal in the world has been routinely and tediously compared to Watergate. Often the real parallels were limited. But not in the case of the scandal that may now bring an abrupt end to the career of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel. His decline and probable fall are extraordinarily similar - the characters involved, their motives, the bureaucratic battles in the background - to what happened to President Richard Nixon in 1972- 73.

Mr Netanyahu's character, as frequently noted in Israel, is very like that of Mr Nixon. Both had a meteoric rise to power. Neither had many scruples. They shared a paranoid - and self-fulfilling - belief that they were surrounded by enemies. In response they surrounded themselves with wholly loyal and subservient henchmen. Mr Nixon chose John Ehrlichman and HR Haldeman as his chief retainers; Mr Netanyahu relied on people from outside the political elite such as Avigdor Lieberman, director general of his office, and Tzahi Hanegbi, the Justice Minister. Israeli police now want to put both men on trial, along with the prime minister himself.

But there is another, less obvious, parallel between the political disasters that engulfed President Nixon and those that now threaten Mr Netanyahu. Each in his own way had offended the powers that be, the bureaucracy of army and state. Mr Nixon could not get the CIA to say that the Watergate burglary was carried out for security reasons. Likewise in his 10 months in office Mr Netanyahu has offended the army, police, security services and judiciary as well as members of his own cabinet. It was no accident that Israel army radio began its programmes yesterday by playing: "Oh what a beautiful morning, Oh What a beautiful day."

This is the reason for thinking that Mr Netanyahu will fall. He is isolated. His cabinet ministers were slow - as the news spread that police wanted him indicted for "fraud and breach of trust" - to come to his defence. And when they did so few spoke with any enthusiasm. If he is indicted by Elyakim Rubinstein, the attorney general, on Sunday, he will probably go immediately. If he is not, then the process will take longer, but he is unlikely to be in office at the end of the summer. Much will depend on the ability of other members of his right-wing Likud party to unite behind an alternative leader.

It is a measure of Mr Netayahu's unpopularity that most Israeli commentators gleefully expect him to fall even though the case against him is not very strong. Evidence of his involvement in the so-called "Bar-On affair" depends largely on witnesses of uncertain reliability.

Not that many people have any doubt about Mr Netanyahu's general intentions. The scandal started last December. The former, highly respected attorney- general Michael Ben-Yair took the hint that it was time for him to go. Mr Ben-Yair had already forced Mr Netanyahu to get rid of his first choice as justice minister, because he was accused of making false statements to the Supreme Court. Ehud Olmert, the Likud mayor of Jerusalem, is on trial for electoral fraud in the 1988 election. Other officials in trouble included a director of Mr Netanyahu's private office accused of making threatening calls to women, several of whom had complained to the police.

But there was one powerful figure in Israeli politics in greater need than others of a sympathetic hearing from the legal establishment. This was Aryeh Deri, a former interior minister and the leader of the religious party Shas, the thirdlargest party in the Knesset, whose 10 seats are crucial to Mr Netanyahu's coalition government. Mr Deri's long trial for corruption has been part of the background to Israeli politics for several years. It was drawing to an end and Mr Deri, a mercurial politician with great organisational talents, was looking for a deal that would enable him to resume his seat in the cabinet.

Mr Netanyahu resolved to help him. What happened next is in dispute. But it is alleged that Mr Deri manoeuvred to get an attorney general appointed who would give him a "judicial soft-landing". Exactly how he did so is the subject of a 995-page police report handed to the present attorney general, and Edna Arbel, the state attorney, this week. The police believe a corrupt deal was done. They think Mr Deri was promised the attorney general of his choice, one who, either through a plea-bargain or an amnesty, would allow the Shas leader to walk free.

It was here that Mr Netanyahu showed his naivete and his aides their inexperience. They could have chosen one of many prominent right-wing lawyers. Instead, on 10 January, Mr Netanyahu forced through his cabinet the appointment of an obscure Jerusalem attorney and Likud party loyalist called Roni Bar-On. The attorney general in Israel is usually a lawyer of standing. The very depth of Mr Bar-On's obscurity tended to highlight the motive for his appointment. The only explanation was that he was expected to go easy on Mr Netanyahu's friends and allies.

Mr Bar-On was laughed out of office. The Israeli media spoke of Caligula's horse. Law professors combined to issue an hysterical denunciation of his appointment. Aharon Barak, the chief justice, denied (contrary to what Mr Hanegbi, the justice minister, had told the cabinet) that he approved of the appointment. Amid much confusion Mr Bar-On resigned after less than 24 hours in his post. He never even saw his office in the Justice Ministry.

There it might have rested. But two weeks later Ayalah Hasson, a reporter on Israeli television channel I, made a sensational claim in a brief item on the nightly news. She said that Mr Deri had insisted on the appointment of Mr Bar-On in order to obtain a plea- bargain. She further claimed - and it was this which ignited an immediate political explosion - that Mr Deri had threatened that if he did not get his way his party would vote against the agreement on the partial Israeli withdrawal from Hebron just signed with the Palestinians. Thus the so-called "Bar-On for Hebron" affair was born.

Of course nothing is quite as simple as this in Israeli politics. Mr Deri's own lawyer, Dan Avi-Yitzhak, had wanted the job of attorney general for himself. When Mr Deri, not wanting to lose his legal representative in the middle of his trial, blocked the appointment, Mr Avi-Yitzhak resigned and denounced his former client. He has since become the police's main witness on how and why Mr Bar-On was appointed, including the involvement of Mr Netanyahu.

As details of the "Bar-On Affair" were published, Israeli commentators spoke of the "Italianisation" of Israeli politics. Everybody touched by the case seemed to have shadowy, if not corrupt, motives. Mr Netanyahu turns out to know a surprising number of people on the edge of the law. In politics he has always lived dangerously. In 1993, for example, he admitted his adultery on television, but claimed he was being blackmailed with an incriminating video of the affair by his political enemies.

Has Mr Netanyahu now come to the end of the road? He will certainly fight back. The only picture on the wall of his office, apart from family portraits, is of Gamla, above the Sea of Galilee, where Jews jumped to their deaths to escape the attack of the Roman legions. He has a Messianic view of his role. If the American politician of the previous generation he most resembles is Richard Nixon, his present-day counterpart is probably Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives. Like him the Israeli prime minister owes his rise to his glibness on television, mostly American television, his rich baritone voice dominating interviews and press conferences.

But like Mr Gingrich he often appears rootless and rudderless. Leaders as diverse as King Hussein and Ariel Sharon, his minister of infrastructure, have said publicly that they no longer believe a word he says to them. He has few friends. He has relied on a small kitchen cabinet of advisers including Mr Lieberman, David Bar-Illan, his chief spokesman, and Dore Gold, his foreign policy adviser. He won the election to be prime minister in 1996 by only 30,000 votes and since then his popularity has not increased. It is this political isolation that may doom him as much as the gravity of the accusations made by the police.

It is a measure of Mr Netanyahu's failure to assert his authority within the Israeli government machine that he only knew that the police wanted to charge him minutes before it was announced on television on Thursday night. He may now be paying a price for alienating so much of the Israeli establishment since he took office. Not that they ever regarded him with much sympathy. Asked what he thought of Mr Netayahu's government, soon after it was formed last June, one conservative Israeli banker replied: "I have never seen a government here so full of crooks and war criminals."

This is a little harsh. But Mr Netanyahu came from outside the Israeli government system. He had made his career as an Israeli diplomat in Washington and New York who could speak on the US television. He had more friends among American columnists and talk-show hosts than their counterparts back in Israel. It is this which made him leader of the right-wing Likud party. Right-wing American Jewish millionaires financed his campaign. American advisers helped him win last year's election. The Israeli right suspects him of willingness to give in under American pressure on issues like Hebron.

Palestinians are jubilant that Mr Netanyahu may go. But it does not necessarily follow that his departure will remove all the difficulties facing the Oslo accords. Israelis are not turning against him because he built a Jewish settlement at Har Homa. A majority of Israeli Jews voted for parties in effect opposing Oslo in the last election.

If Netanyahu stays, his authority will be crippled. If he goes, Israel will have had three prime ministers in 18 months. This is a symptom of great political instability, of deep divisions within Israeli society, which perhaps only a final agreement with the Palestinians can bring to an end.