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Netanyahu is in trouble, but who will replace him?

The unfortunate truth is that no Israeli political leader - nor the electorate at large - is willing to take any risks for peace

It looks like the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's long history of skirting corruption scandals may be running out of time.

For decades, Netanyahu has been accused and investigated for various shady schemes. Twenty years ago, police even declared him so implicated that they recommended he be charged.

But like the cat with nine lives, he's escaped every entanglement. But probably not this time.

Bibi news

On Monday, Netanyahu's own hand-picked police commissioner, Roni Alsheikh, recommended to the attorney general Avichai Mandelblit that the prime minister be indicted on corruption charges in two separate cases (popularly known as Cases 1000 and 2000).

The leading candidate to replace Netanyahu may be the centre-right leader of Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid. Though he has a reputation for being more moderate, he is no dove on the Israel-Palestine conflict

In the first one, the Israeli leader is accused of accepting $300,000 in gifts from billionaires Arnon Milchan and James Packer in return for providing each of them assistance in obtaining residential visas (Milchan's was a US visa and Packer's an Israeli visa).

In Case 2000, Netanyahu allegedly conspired with the then-publisher of one of Israel's leading daily newspapers, Yediot Achronot, to publish favourable coverage of him (the paper was known as a strong critic of his policies) in return for an agreement that Israel HaYom, Israel's most popular daily, would stop publishing its weekend edition.

The paper, popularly known as Bibiton (Bibi-news), is free. That offers an insurmountable competitive obstacle to other Israeli dailies, which don't have billionaire deep-pocket owners. That's why Yediot's financially besieged publisher was willing to cut a deal which would reduce his competition. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 2nd from left, attends ceremony for arrival of German-made submarine INS Rahav at military port of Haifa in January 2016 (AFP)
 Bibiton regularly published fawning coverage of the Israeli prime minister and was launched to promote his political career. Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected allegations of misconduct, saying he is the target of a campaign by political opponents.

There are two further corruption cases brewing which haven't yet enveloped Netanyahu himself. The first is called case 3000, and involves a scheme to rig the bidding on the Israeli purchase of German nuclear-armed Dolphin submarines, and there is also case 4000.

Netanyahu's involvement hovers over each of these two cases, though investigators have, so far, not tied him directly to the submarine affair.

Where do things go from here? After the police recommendation, Mandelblit, another hand-picked Netanyahu figure who was once his cabinet secretary, must determine whether to open a case against him. 

The attorney general has just praised the police investigation in the face of Netanyahu's attacks, saying it was highly professional and "by the book".

What next?

If he does, an indictment is in the offing - though the final decision could take as long as a year. Once that happens, Netanyahu becomes quite vulnerable. No sitting prime minister has ever withstood such a legal development and remained in power. Ehud Olmert was the last PM who faced this predicament, and he resigned.

Netanyahu has adamantly stated he would never resign if he was indicted. But the decision may not be up to him. If his coalition partners stand firm behind him, he may withstand the challenge. But if they don't (as happened to Olmert), he will fall.

Much will depend on the will of the people: if there are massive demonstrations against Netanyahu (so far protests have been regular, but not huge) then his political partners may relent and abandon him.

If Mandelblit refuses to indict, that will open a complicated can of worms, in which many in Israel will see his refusal as a crooked deal by one crony to benefit his political godfather. That will undoubtedly arouse immense anger within Israel, though just how much remains to be seen.

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It's very important not to resort to the sort of Cassandra Effect many in the liberal (Zionist) media will adopt: Netanyahu is falling; this could be an opening for a new prime minister who will be more open to compromise and a peace deal with Palestinians.

You'll read that headline in the New York Times, possibly the Washington Post, maybe in the Guardian. Don't believe it for a minute. It's not going to happen.

The leading candidate to replace Netanyahu may be the centre-right leader of Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid. Though he has a reputation for being more moderate than Netanyahu, he is no dove on the Israel-Palestine conflict. He is as racist as any Israeli politician.

Lapid, like all of his predecessors in that chair, will never undertake the type of compromises necessary to broker a successful deal. Whoever replaces Netanyahu will offer more of the same. Perhaps he will sound different or look different.

But underneath, he will offer the same refusals, the same rejection as Netanyahu. The unfortunate truth is that no Israeli political leader and the electorate -at large- are willing to take any risks for peace.

- Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the upcoming collection Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem 11 February 2018 (Reuters)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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