Netanyahu basks in victories, but graft probes still loom

by Stephen Weizman
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was all smiles at the opening of the US embassy to Israel in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has basked in recent victories from the US withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal to opening its embassy in Jerusalem, giving him respite from graft probes breathing down his neck.

US President Donald Trump granted Netanyahu's long-sought wish on May 8 when he abandoned an international agreement meant to curb the nuclear activities of Israel's main enemy Iran.

Netanyahu fought against the deal even before its 2015 signing, going as far as to defy then president Barack Obama and lobby against the draft accord from the floor of the US Congress while it was still being negotiated.

In another victory for Netanyahu, Trump's deeply controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital resulted in the move of his country's embassy there from Tel Aviv on Monday.

It was marked with festive ceremonies attended by a US delegation that included Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, both White House aides.

Netanyahu spoke at the inauguration, seeming to revel in the occasion.

"What a glorious day. Remember this moment. This is history," he said.

But at the same time on the Israel-Gaza border, Israeli troops killed some 60 Palestinians during protests and clashes, leading to international condemnation.

Netanyahu backed the soldiers' actions.

"Every country has the obligation to defend its borders," he said.

For the 68-year-old premier, the Iran deal reversal and embassy move were no doubt personal vindication after years of making his case for both.

But they were also likely a welcome break from the legal troubles he is facing.

- Chicken dance -

A series of graft investigations are looking into Netanyahu's affairs, and the attorney general is expected to make a decision on indictments in two of those cases in the coming months.

Police have recommended his indictment for bribery.

Netanyahu, prime minister for a total of some 12 years, has always maintained his innocence, but the investigations have gradually ratcheted up speculation over whether he will eventually be forced from office.

His wife Sara Netanyahu is also facing a possible trial over alleged misuse of public funds, which she denies.

With that in mind, Netanyahu may have had good reason to literally break out in dance this week over one recent victory.

Just two days before the embassy opening, Israeli singer Neta Barzilai took first place in the Eurovision Song Contest, sending a wave of euphoria sweeping over Israelis of all ages and political allegiances.

On Sunday, arriving at the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu briefly flapped his arms in a reference to Barzilai's signature chicken dance. He did the same when meeting Barzilai later in the week.

A recent poll would have only further improved his mood.

The poll conducted by Israeli newspaper Maariv on May 9 and published on May 11 showed Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party on a surge even before the embassy opening -- or even the Eurovision win.

It predicted Likud expanding its hold on the 120-seat parliament to 36 places from its current 30.

The survey was carried out a day before Israel confirmed hitting "dozens of Iranian military targets," in Syria after repeatedly warning it would not tolerate continuing Iranian deployment in the war-torn neighbouring country.

Jerusalem Post senior commentator Amotz Asa-El said those strikes and the way the operation, codenamed House of Cards, was managed won Netanyahu more prestige than Trump's actions.

"This I think impressed the Israeli mainstream, both the public and the media," he told AFP.

"There was thorough planning, there was strategic thinking... it was successful and there is nothing people appreciate more than success."

- 'Little news' -

Ben Caspit, a columnist with Israeli newspaper Maariv, wrote Tuesday that Netanyahu was on a roll of biblical proportions.

"At this rate, by the end of the week the Messiah will also come," he wrote. "Or else he has come already and we did not notice."

Before the recent string of Netanyahu victories, there had been almost daily stories on the corruption investigations.

In late March, police and securities authority investigators grilled the premier for the ninth time in various cases directly or indirectly concerning him.

His wife and son Yair were simultaneously questioned.

Asa-El says the corruption cases are on the media back burner pending developments.

"The media is waiting for the legal process to mature," he told AFP.

"The general impression is that this will happen sometime between December and the following winter when the attorney general decides on which counts (Netanyahu) might be indicted."

"The general impression is that he will be indicted at least on some counts and everybody is simply waiting to see what the judiciary ends up doing," he added. "Until that moment there is little news to report."

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was all smiles at the opening of the US embassy to Israel in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018