By Mazal Mualem
February 22, 2018
As the clock inched toward 10 a.m. on Feb. 21, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his feelings known via Facebook after almost half a day of silence. His previous post, from the day before, had featured a video clip filmed shortly before another political and media bombshell exploded: Shlomo Filber — Netanyahu’s close aide and confidant and suspended director-general of the Communications Ministry — was about to turn state’s witness against his former boss. The clip had been hurriedly prepared by Netanyahu at the end of a long day of ups and downs involving his close associates under interrogation. In the video, Netanyahu repeats his claim that he and his family are the victims of persecution. He looked broken and exhausted.
Netanyahu had sought legal advice into the wee hours in assessing the damage that Filber had inflicted on him. Meanwhile, Likud ministers remained shrouded in silence. They evaded interviews and avoided all mention of the ongoing investigative earthquake. They were beginning, however, to assess their situation among themselves. When all was said and done, and considering the dizzying pace of events, the possibility of early elections began to seem a logical conclusion. The big question loomed: Had Netanyahu reached his breaking point after more than a year of serious allegations of bribery? When would the moment come for Netanyahu to announce his departure, as former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had done in his time?
Around 10 a.m., Netanyahu emitted a sign of life — posting a survey on Facebook showing that the Likud's projected mandate had risen to 34. He quoted a well-known biblical verse (Exodus 1:12): “But the more they [the Jews] were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread.” The message was clear: The more he is confronted with police accusations, the more he will fight back and soar in the polls. He would not raise a white flag, and he would continue to fight to clear himself.
Later in the morning, Netanyahu attended a Cabinet meeting where he exuded a business-as-usual demeanour. He received the support of the heads of the coalition parties headed by Naftali Bennett and Moshe Kahlon, HaBayit HaYehudi and Kulanu, respectively. Kahlon emphasized that everyone should wait for the decision of the attorney general. In the evening, Netanyahu made an appearance before the yearly Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, where he seemed to be back to his old self. He avoided any reference to the legal drama in the background, and in his speech, which was broadcast live, he praised Israeli intelligence for preventing the downing of an Australian plane and promised the audience that he would meet them at the same place next year.
Later in the evening, Netanyahu’s mood further improved, after Channel 10 and the News channel announced the results of surveys showing that despite the dramatic developments in Case 4000 — involving Netanyahu’s relations with Shaul Elovitch, majority stakeholder in the telecommunications provider Bezeq — Netanyahu remained strong. If elections were held that day, he would be the person putting together the next government. These surveys naturally calmed the internal turmoil of the Likud.
All the signs suggest that Netanyahu, despite the legal quandary in which his fate appears to be sealed, believes that all is not yet lost. That is why he continues to fight. This stems from the character trait that in the past has extricated him from daunting situations that others thought impossible to beat. For example, in the initial weeks after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Netanyahu faced accusations of inciting hatred and that his campaign of incitement had triggered Rabin's murder. At the time, Netanyahu was kept at arm’s length, even by his own party, where plans were hatched to give him the boot because polls showed that the Likud would be crushed in the next elections. Netanyahu got back on his feet, ignored the background noise and got on with the fight. Despite the conventional wisdom that Rabin’s assassination would lead to Netanyahu’s political demise that did not happen. Instead, Netanyahu succeeded in harnessing the anger on the right from being collectively tainted as partners in murder and transforming it into sweeping political energy. Against all odds, Netanyahu was elected to the premiership in 1996.
Netanyahu once explained that he will fight on behalf of a goal so long as he feels that there is a chance he can still change the situation. He stops only when he recognizes that it is not in his hands to do so. Thus, for example, on the morning of the 1999 elections, when he already knew that he would lose to Ehud Barak, Netanyahu put in a perfunctory appearance at the polling stations, doing only the minimum. He was unruffled and had reconciled himself to the inevitable. By contrast, when Netanyahu wanted to stop Reuven Rivlin from becoming president in 2014, he went to great lengths, including zany attempts to recruit Eli Wiesel to the presidency despite the latter’s advanced age and ill health. The prime minister even went so far as to try to eliminate the presidency by law.
Becoming embroiled in criminal activity is a horse of a different colour, however. If taken to its extreme, it could cause Netanyahu to lose his freedom and wipe out his legacy as prime minister. That is why he is not even close to capitulating. Even when it seems to others that the war is lost, Netanyahu sees a long struggle ahead that will only sharpen his senses. This mode of operation is part innate personality and part youthful experience gained in the elite Matkal reconnaissance platoon. This is in addition to an ingrained persecution complex, which was evident from the start of his political career and has only grown stronger with time.
Netanyahu truly believes that he is being persecuted by the left and by the media. This only intensifies his motivation to fight against both of them. The prime minister also believes that he was “chosen” to lead the State of Israel and safeguard its security. Thus, the life story he constructs for himself is filled with a sense of mission. That is what gets him up in the morning “for another day of battle” against the “forces of evil” that are trying to bring him down. So long as no more state witnesses make an appearance, Netanyahu will evidently be able to maintain his political and public juggling act over the next few months and retain his position.
What happens after that? As noted, Netanyahu looks to be gearing up for a long, drawn-out battle. This is his default setting. He will only relinquish his seat in the event of an all-out political war. This does not stem merely from stubbornness or a do-or-die attitude. Rather, it reflects Netanyahu’s internal essence as a person who lives with never-ending conflict and constant struggles against real and imaginary opponents.
The “World According to Netanyahu” constantly sizzles with dangers that he tries to identify in real time and nip in the bud. This time, it is not clear that he anticipated the blow inflicted by his friend and confidant.
Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel.