This Is Israel’s Nixon Moment
Lies. Crimes. Scandal. All in a year’s work for one Benjamin Netanyahu who has destroyed Israelis’ faith in politics.
JERUSALEM—For Benjamin Netanyahu, 2021 has been an unmitigated nightmare.
In June, after four failed efforts to form a governing coalition, and after a record 15 years in the top job as prime minister of Israel, the last 12 years uninterrupted, 72-year-old Netanyahu was finally removed from office by a patchwork coalition of former allies he baselessly claims committed “the greatest election fraud… in the history of any democracy.”
So far, it has not been going well. Netanyahu has been dealt a relentless series of setbacks in almost every sphere, leaving his legacy badly dented and his political future murky. Politically, says Alon Pinkas, a columnist in the liberal daily Haaretz and a former adviser to prime ministers other than Netanyahu, “2021 means The End. It’s over.”
Benjamin Netanyahu was Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and its most dominant political figure since David Ben-Gurion, who founded the state. He was a man once seen by his fellow citizens—and by much of the world—as Israel’s human incarnation. And yet he has left office in ignominy, on trial for corruption, supported mostly by marginal political riffraff, his reputation in tatters.
With his on-going corruption trial expected to dominate the headlines through 2022, Israel is still coming to terms with Netanyahu’s bequest and its repercussions for the country. Just as Nixon’s malfeasance tainted the White House in the eyes of Americans for decades, Bibi’s fall from grace will challenge the Israeli public that has lost faith in in the country’s ruling institutions.
The year started badly for Netanyahu, with the death, in January, of his top supporter, the Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, and the unceremonious departure of his top international ally, another Adelson protégé, Donald Trump, following the botched Jan. 6 insurrection. The year 2021 then took a sharp turn for the worse as the new Biden administration embarked on renewed talks with Iran, which Israel views as the greatest military threat to its security.
Leading Israel’s response, Prime Minister Bennett has delicately noted that his government “inherited a situation in which Iran is at the most advanced point ever in its race to the bomb.” But Israel’s former security chiefs have bluntly accused Netanyahu of neglecting the country’s interests for a personally advantageous public friendship with Trump.
Former defense minister Moshe Yaalon slammed Netanyahu for “encouraging Trump to leave the Iran deal,” calling the withdrawal “an historic mistake,” and attributing the current Israeli government’s reluctance to unequivocally blame Netanyahu for the disaster to “politics.” Withdrawing from the deal, he told Haaretz, was Israel’s “foremost mistake” in the past decade.
Ephraim Halevy, a former Mossad director, accused Netanyahu of betraying Israel’s national security vis-à-vis Jordan. Nadav Argaman, the departing head of Israel’s internal security service, said in his farewell remarks that Netanyahu endangered national security by strengthening the Islamist militia Hamas at the expense of the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority.
Even the bromance with Trump, for which Netanyahu risked so much, has ended badly. In an interview for a recently published book, Trump bitterly smarted that Netanyahu had congratulated Biden after winning the election, saying, “I haven’t spoken to him since. Fuck him.”
Netanyahu’s reaction to his diminished circumstances has ranged from repeating wild and unsubstantiated conspiracies against him to the contention that Israel, under Bennett, has become a “fascist” nation.
In a bizarre English-language clip, Netanyahu alleged that bills presented by the current Israeli government are equivalent to the laws of Iran and North Korea. Benny Begin, a parliamentarian and former member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, described the video as the former prime minister’s “Russia, if you’re listening…” moment, noting that “it is the first time an Opposition Leader has asked foreign powers to intervene in Israel’s legislative process.”
In another in extremis post, Netanyahu, who in his final hours in office secured unprecedented secret service details for his wife and adult sons, floated a number of imagined threats against their safety from foreign “enemy states” and begged Israelis, “do not forsake the security of my wife and children!”
The Likud is in turmoil, and, with several former cronies challenging his leadership, much of Netanyahu’s public advocacy has been relegated to thuggish criminals such as the racial supremacist Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is under investigation for pulling a gun out at an unarmed garage attendant who asked him to remove his car from an illegal spot.
Netanyahu is devoting much of his energy to purging any party members whose loyalty he doubts. In late December, he posted a list of 7,000 personae non gratae whose names were erased from the party lists. In response to another Nixonian misadventure, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit recently ruled that Netanyahu must return almost $1 million he received illegally, when still in office, to cover his legal expenses, from two American businessmen. Separately, the Netanyahu family has been ordered to to relinquish 21 “gifts” they took when leaving the official residence, which are considered government property.
Netanyahu’s 30-year-old son, Yair, a right-wing internet troll whose influence over his father remains a source of public fascination, was fined $631 for failing to show up in court to face libel charges from a young woman who he claimed, for no known reason, was in an adulterous relationship with one of his father’s political rivals.
On the second-to-last day of 2021, the Israeli State formally demanded Netanyahu return 30 gifts he took at the end of his term. His lawyers claimed “some were broken and some were lost.”
While the Netanyahu family has long been in the news—in 2019, Sara Netanyahu, the former prime minister’s wife, was convicted of misusing public funds, the corruption trial has also brought the internal machinations of Netanyahu’s once powerful and impenetrable inner circle.
The most prominent example is Nir Hefetz, a man who spent his entire career operating in the shadows.. He is commonly referred to as “former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former spokesman,” but in fact, acted for years as the Netanyahu family’s ruthless fixer, crushing journalists and politicians alike on behalf of the man Israelis called “Mr. Security.”
Hefetz was virtually unknown to the Israeli public until his stunning arrest in 2018, at the height of the police investigation into then-Prime Minister Netanyahu, which resulted in the premiere’s unprecedented indictment on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Today, he is the star witness for the prosecution in Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial and has transfixed Israelis with a string of astonishing—and devastating—revelations about Bibi, as Netanyahu is universally called.
His testimony, which began in November, depicts a brooding, distracted Netanyahu ignoring security risks while consumed with perceived enemies in Israeli media and business. Under cross questioning by Netanyahu’s defense attorney, Hefetz let it slip that he left his powerful job in September 2017 “because I believed that he was no longer fit to make security decisions for the State of Israel,” adding, “I still believe that today.”
Netanyahu’s ex-consigliere was referring to the crisis that errupted following a 2017 terror attack in which two Israeli police officers were killed in the perimeter of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in Jerusalem’s Old City. The prime minister’s decision to install metal detectors around the Muslim holy site provoked massive street protests, which, according to Hefetz, could have sparked a “security incident in which thousands could have died.”
In court earlier this month, Hefetz described Netanyahu as a wary, compulsive shredder who destroys every piece of paper within reach, “even shopping lists.”
“Only the mafia shreds every document!” exploded Or-ly Barlev, an independent journalist who covers every court session live. “Netanyahu shreds every document and we are supposed to be calm about it because it’s ‘routine’?!”
Hefetz concluded his testimony on Wednesday. Next up: Ari Harow, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, who is expected to reveal even more secrets from Netanyahu’s once-formidable brain trust.