Yesterday was supposed to be Benjamin Netanyahu’s day—the first time, during his nearly eleven years as Prime Minister of Israel, that a Republican President greeted him at the White House. Not only had he outlasted Barack Obama but he’d seen the election of a candidate who, during his campaign, seemed to have bought Netanyahu’s pitch. As President-elect, Donald Trump tweeted against the United Nations Security Council’s condemnation of settlements in Palestinian territory, promised to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem, and nominated a hard-line settlement supporter to be his Ambassador to Israel.
Things did not work out as planned. On Monday night, Michael Flynn, Trump’s national-security adviser, who was expected to amplify Netanyahu’s claims of an Iranian threat, resigned. Washington was in tumult over reports of Flynn and other Trump advisers’ communications with Russian intelligence officials. Netanyahu himself arrived compromised by personal scandal and political strain. He is the target of three criminal investigations, and an indictment in any of them could force his resignation, much as corruption allegations forced the resignation of his predecessor and rival Ehud Olmert, in 2008. The most serious of these accusations has undermined his support in Israel’s security establishment, which he purports to represent. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has been cornered by zealots in his coalition, who had assumed, with his encouragement, that Trump’s election would allow them to freely pursue the settlement project, unhindered by talk of a Palestinian state.
Much has been made of Trump’s remarks yesterday about the prospects for a two-state solution. “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” he said at his joint press conference with Netanyahu. “I can live with either one.” Many saw this as a victory for the far-right elements of Netanyahu’s coalition, but Trump’s remarks were contradictory at times, and complicated for Netanyahu. “Trump said ‘compromise,’ criticized new settlements, said we have ‘to agree,’ “ Mohammad Mustafa, the head of the Palestine Investment Fund, and a confidant of the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, told me. “These sound like positions Israel needs to hold for the two-state solution to succeed.” He added, “But it is obvious that, if we are to have a sovereign Palestinian state, we need to move away from this state of ambiguity as soon as possible.”
“Netanyahu is going to Washington wounded,” Olmert told me last week, while on a three-day furlough from prison. “The smiles will be there, but he’ll leave Washington even more wounded.” The most sensational of the three investigations involving the Prime Minister, “File 2000,” concerns Netanyahu’s secret recordings of 2014 conversations with Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot. In the recordings, which the police discovered when they searched the cell phone and computer of Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Mozes is heard offering to hire journalists sympathetic to Netanyahu, while the Prime Minister offers to act against Israel Hayom—a free daily, financed by the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson to promote Netanyahu—which was cutting into Yediot Ahronot’s advertising revenue. (This was actually the second such conversation; in 2009, Haaretz’s Nati Tucker reported, Netanyahu offered to preëmpt Israel Hayom’s publication of its weekend edition.) Netanyahu has claimed that his intent was to entrap Mozes. In any case, Yediot Ahronot remained hostile to the Prime Minister—the deal never happened.
More banal is “File 1000,” which concerns Arnon Milchan, the billionaire Israeli film producer, and his regular shipments of cigars and champagne to Netanyahu and his wife. The estimated value of these gifts from a friend, as Netanyahu describes them—and which Milchan reportedly told police “made him feel sick”—amounted to a hundred and eighty thousand dollars. Netanyahu successfully lobbied Secretary of State John Kerry for the renewal of Milchan’s American visa, which allowed Milchan to avoid paying millions of dollars in Israeli taxes.
The most serious investigation—certainly the most politically consequential—is “File 3000,” which concerns the procurement of German military vessels. Israel is widely known to maintain a small fleet of advanced, Dolphin-class submarines, which are capable of firing cruise missiles with nuclear warheads; these constitute the country’s sea-based, second-strike capability. In early 2015, the Israel Defense Forces recommended retiring one submarine upon the delivery of a new one, which would arrive in 2019. This would leave the I.D.F. with six such vessels, which strategic planners reckoned would be sufficient. The head of the National Security Council then discovered that Netanyahu had authorized the purchase of three additional submarines, at a cost of almost a billion and a half dollars.
Moshe Ya’alon, the Defense Minister and former chief of staff of the I.D.F., performed a review to be sure that the Prime Minister had not been inadvertently misled, and, at first, no action on the submarines seemed imminent. Then, in February of last year, the Defense Minister’s office learned that Netanyahu, who was about to visit Germany, planned to sign a deal regarding the purchase of the three additional submarines from their German builder, ThyssenKrupp. “The issue was examined in the chief of staff’s office, in the Navy headquarters and in the Planning Directorate,” Yediot Ahronot’s Alex Fishman wrote, last November. “No one in each of these three offices had a clue about the new submarine deal.” For the second time, Ya’alon protested that the purchase had not been mandated by defense planners. Netanyahu signed only a Memorandum of Understanding, in which Israel promised to buy the submarines at a discounted price over the next decade. But in May, as tensions grew between Netanyahu and Ya’alon over a number of military issues, Netanyahu forced Ya’alon’s resignation, replacing him with Avigdor Lieberman, a longtime far-right leader.
Why was Netanyahu so eager to finalize the submarine deal? Why did he hide his intention to sign the purchase agreement from the defense establishment? These questions were circulating when, last November, Channel 10 reported on an earlier dispute between Netanyahu and Ya’alon, which seemed to explain the current situation. In the winter of 2015, Israel had purchased four German frigates, also from ThyssenKrupp, at a cost of nearly a half billion dollars. The contract was to be put out for bidding, but that competition was halted when ThyssenKrupp came up with a reduced price and Germany offered to subsidize the deal. Ya’alon had opposed ending the competition, but the German bid was strong and the deal was eventually done. Channel 10 reported that, in July of 2014, the Defense Ministry’s legal adviser had sent an e-mail to the Defense Ministry’s director-general saying that David Shimron, the lawyer representing the German firm’s agent, had called him. Shimron wanted to know, the e-mail said, if “we are halting the bidding process in order to negotiate with his client, as was requested of us by the Prime Minister.”
The e-mail’s words were sobering, if not incriminating. ThyssenKrupp’s agent stood to make as much as thirty million euros from the sales, and Shimron and his firm were expected to share in the windfall. Channel 10 did not have to add that Shimron was, famously, Netanyahu’s personal lawyer, cousin, and confidant.
Earlier this month, I spoke to Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s national-security adviser from 2009 to 2011, about Shimron’s involvement in the deal. When Arad heard that Shimron was the legal adviser to the German firm, he “felt stabbing pain,” he told me. “And Shimron interceded on behalf of his client to cancel tenders—cancel any competition. How could this be legal?” Arad is skeptical that Netanyahu can survive the File 3000 scandal, but he’s also concerned that the investigation may be impeded by cronyism. Avichai Mandelblit, the Attorney General, was appointed by Netanyahu. As Ruth Margalit noted last month, there is evidence that Mandelblit sat on compromising evidence for months. “When the thrust of the allegations is so powerful, they cannot ignore them,” Arad said. “But they can delay, control, and spin.”
Whether or not charges are brought, the controversies have made Netanyahu far more vulnerable at home than he seemed at the White House yesterday. He has built his career by playing to both strategy hawks like Arad and settler ideologues like Naftali Bennett, the Education Minister and leader of the Jewish Home Party. The former are abandoning him; the latter are no longer sure that they need him. Arad—who believes that, in pandering to the settler-right, Netanyahu is “taking Israel to the abyss”—is now advising Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist party Yesh Atid, which leads Netanyahu’s Likud in the polls. Lapid has been trying to persuade Ya’alon, who resigned as Defense Minister last May, as well as two former chiefs of staff for Netanyahu, to join his party’s ranks.
Meanwhile, the far-right members of the Prime Minister’s coalition are pressing him to drop any pretense of favoring the two-state solution. On the eve of Netanyahu’s departure for Washington, Bennett warned him that, should he and Trump discuss a Palestinian state, the “earth will shake.” Such a discussion, Bennett said, would encourage the world to rally against Israel, but there was also a veiled threat: any new action against the settlers will prompt him to take down the government and try to inherit leadership of the Israeli right. He has already won a test of strength. On February 6th, Bennett forced a Knesset vote on the “Arrangement Law,” which retroactively legalized about four thousand housing units in fifty-five settlements. The law passed with the backing of Netanyahu’s full coalition.
No one doubts Netanyahu’s support for the settlements. Early this month, he announced the construction of more than five thousand new housing units (which prompted the Trump Administration, sounding unusually disciplined, to “urge all parties to refrain from taking unilateral actions”). But the far-right members of his coalition will always go further. Bennett is pushing for annexation of all of “Area C,” the sixty per cent of the West Bank where the settlers are scattered. After the Arrangement Law passed, the Foreign Ministry released talking points, reportedly written by Netanyahu himself, suggesting that diplomats should argue that the law be disregarded because Israel’s High Court will likely overturn it. Yariv Levin, Likud’s own Tourism Minister, went on Reshet Bet radio to protest: “Israel has no Constitution, and so you can’t say what is constitutional and what isn’t. I’m tired of people overturning Israeli democracy by saying laws are unconstitutional. This is a choice between world views. Ours won.”
Despite some of Trump’s remarks at the press conference yesterday, that view does not seem to have won conclusively in Washington. Trump also said that he expects “to make a deal” with Netanyahu, and that “it might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room even understand.” He later said, “It would take in many, many countries and would cover a very large territory.” Last Thursday, the Times reported that, after meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, the Trump Administration is considering a multilateral approach to negotiations, bringing in Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. This “outside-in” approach is not outlandish, and does not necessarily mean the end of the two-state solution: it was attempted in the Arab Peace Initiative, which John Kerry and Tony Blair have endorsed, and it suggests that Israel could be a part of an anti-Iranian alliance, which would appeal to Netanyahu. The prospect of regional recognition of Israel, including by the Saudis, could make it easier for Palestinian leaders to make concessions, especially regarding shared sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Old City.
As Haaretz’s Barak Ravid noted this morning, the evident warmth between Trump and Netanyahu could not conceal the “contradictions, political sloganeering and more than a few disagreements that were elegantly shoved aside.” That is probably the best Netanyahu could have hoped for, but he may not outlast the contradictions. He has staked his reputation on being able to deal with a Republican Administration; at the same time, any progress on Trump’s “bigger and better deal” will undermine what remains of his support among the settlers. As Netanyahu told his Cabinet before leaving for Washington, “Trump believes in a deal; we have to make every effort to avoid a confrontation with him.”