Leaving behind two looming bribery indictments and two other ongoing corruption investigations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will land in Washington early next month to face an administration and a pro-Israel American Jewish community that seemingly couldn’t care less about his legal troubles at home.
The Trump White House, where ongoing criminal investigations directed at the nation’s top elected official are all too familiar, has largely dismissed the recommendation by Israel’s national police to indict Netanyahu for bribery. Trump, said a White House official, “has a tremendous relationship” with Netanyahu and is looking forward to meeting with him. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert added in her February 13 press briefing that the U.S. considered Netanyahu’s corruption cases “an internal Israeli matter.”
Netanyahu not only enjoys the administration’s sympathy and its sense of forgiveness, but is also in a position to leverage his warm welcome in the U.S. to help paper over his political troubles at home, where recommendations to indict a sitting prime minister are not viewed lightly.
“He will try to emphasize to the Israeli public his value as someone who they have to thank for the strong economy and for Israel’s standing in the world,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The police’s bombshell February 13 announcement, declaring that investigators are recommending charging the prime minister with two counts of bribery, kicked off a legal process that will take months to fully unfold. Netanyahu is accused of receiving expensive cigars and crates of champagne from a Hollywood producer in exchange for supporting tax breaks and other favors, and of offering business benefits to a publisher of a major newspaper if his paper took a more positive tone when covering the prime minister. The cases are now awaiting a review by the attorney general, after which Netanyahu’s lawyers will get a chance to make their case before official indictments are served.
Days after the bombshell, headlines in Israel were still speculating about the prime minister’s political future, but Netanyahu had already moved on — literally. He first headed to the Munich Security Conference and then began preparing for his March 4 Washington trip. This annual winter visit to Washington is considered the apex of Netanyahu’s diplomatic calendar and usually includes an Oval Office one-on-one with the president, talks with friendly congressional leaders and a keynote speech at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
There is little doubt that Netanyahu will be warmly received by more than 10,000 delegates at AIPAC’s policy conference. The pro-Israel lobby has a strict policy of avoiding inserting itself into internal Israeli politics and, as such, its members tend to overlook the political — or legal — problems facing Israeli leaders at home.
Netanyahu can lean, however, on the ever-growing power of the right wing within the Jewish community, where his indictment is seen as a Deep State-like attempt to oust a prime minister in line with their pro-settler worldview in order to bring about elections that could lead to the victory of a centrist such as Yair Lapid, who served as a key witness against Netanyahu.
“To be certain, replacing Netanyahu with Lapid would concern us greatly in a host of areas,” said the president of the Coalition for Jewish Values, Rabbi Pesach Lerner. “We don’t know if anyone else could have the relationship with President Trump that Netanyahu enjoys, Iran would be anxious to take advantage and Lapid is unfriendly to Israel’s growing observant community.”
Another CJV board member, Rabbi Dov Fischer, expressed hope in a column for the right-wing Israel National News website that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit would “have the wisdom to drop this nonsense.”
During his trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Netanyahu will find a friendlier-than-ever administration that agrees with him on almost every issue, from Iran to Syria, and gives no weight to his recent scandals. Most importantly, the Trump administration does not seem interested in publicly pressuring the prime minister to take steps needed for advancing a peace deal with the Palestinians.
In fact, Netanyahu’s recent legal problems are likely to toughen his positions. “The investigations tie Netanyahu closer to his base, which means he will be even less open to compromise,” said Makovsky “He’s more dependent on the hard right now.”
Bibi’s U.S. Buddies Don’t Care About Bribery Scandal
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.