TEL AVIV—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, planning for a Monday meeting with President Donald Trump and an address to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Netanyahu and Trump, who are close allies, will be meeting for the fifth time in a year that has seen their administrations buffeted by uncanny parallel challenges. On Monday, Nir Hefetz, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff and a close personal friend of both Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, signed a plea agreement and turned state’s witness against the prime minister.
Hefetz, who has just been released after two weeks under arrest, could have a devastating effect on Netanyahu in at least three criminal investigations which have named the prime minister as a criminal suspect.
In early February, the police recommended he be indicted in two cases, one involving political favors allegedly granted to wealthy friends in exchange for lavish gifts, the other one in which Netanyahu is charged with attempting to ensure positive coverage in Yediot Ahronot in exchange for damaging the prospects of its top rival, a free tabloid owned by the Trump organization and Netanyahu backer Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas mogul.
Hefetz will be the fourth close Netanyahu associate and second former chief of staff to sign a plea deal with the state.
As news of the latest blow to Netanyahu’s legal prospects filtered out on Monday, his allies attempted to diminish its effect. Speaking to a radio news show, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovelly said “every time another state’s witness is announced you [journalists] all say it’s an earthquake, and then nothing comes of it.”
Perhaps unconsciously casting doubt on Netanyahu’s innocence, she added, “Hefetz will not betray the prime minister.”
Behind the scenes, a political battle royal is already underway, as Netanyahu ministers, all members of an uneasy coalition, jostle each other to gauge the moment to best provoke a crisis that will lead to early elections.
A poll released Monday by Tel Aviv University professor Camil Fuchs showed the Likud, Netanyahu’s party, remaining the largest in Israel’s fractured parliament were elections held immediately, but the general political outlook remains volatile.
Instead of packing or preparing, Nettoyant spent five hours Friday answering questions from the Israeli police, the eighth time in 18 months that he has been interrogated as a suspect in a criminal case, and he was forced to devote much of Saturday attempting to staunch the political hemorrhage that is threatening the future of his government.
Then he departed on what he repeatedly described on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and in official statements as “a very important visit.”
In fact, Netanyahu faces a difficult exchange with Trump, whom he described upon departure as “a very great friend of Israel, and my personal friend,” before hinting at the trouble: Iran.
His relations with American Jews are at a nadir following his abandonment of the Western Wall agreement, a 2016 deal that would have allowed the liberal streams of Judaism that represent the majority of American Jews an equal place to pray at the Jerusalem’s holiest site.
Making matters worse are those police investigations closing in on Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, who was—separately but simultaneously—also interrogated on Friday, in a case involving an exchange of regulatory favors for positive coverage in a news outlet owned by Bezeq, the Israeli telecom giant.
Worst for Netanyahu in the short term, his government is closer than ever to collapse, with ministers openly discussing the possibility of snap elections that could be held as soon as three months from now.
And the Israeli government is feeling increasingly alone regarding Iran’s growing military presence across its northern border in Syria.
The prospect of a direct military clash between the two longtime regional enemies was put in stark focus on Feb. 10, when Israel intercepted a drone launched into its airspace from an Iranian base in Syria. Israeli retaliated by bombing of Syrian and Iranian military targets, but an Israeli F-16 was felled by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile as it returned.
So, before jetting off to see Trump, Netanyahu declared, “I intend to discuss with him a series of issues, but first Iran—its aggression, its nuclear aspirations, and its aggressive actions in the Middle East in general and on our borders, all of them, in particular. I think that the need to rebuff this aggression is a common goal for us and for nearby countries in the region, but first of all it is ours, that of all Israelis.”
In recent days, Jerusalem has expressed alarm over a dawning realization that “the United States is not doing enough to help counter Iranian entrenchment,” as one official said to Channel 10 News.
“Their priority is to defeat the Islamic State in Syria. It is convenient for them to outsource Iran to us,” he said.
Netanyahu’s summary scuttling of the Western Wall deal, which alienated many American Jews, came in a previous bid to retain his right-wing, ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. The rift is such that at last December’s biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism, its president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, asked the crowd if “our ties to Israel have been broken.”
No, the audience responded, but the question itself spoke volumes.
Secular or liberal Israelis, accustomed to the fact of religious parties’ intervention in their political sphere, have simply stopped going to the site, the holiest site in Judaism, the retaining wall for the ancient temples in Jerusalem. The Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70, during the Roman Siege of Jerusalem. The wall abuts the Esplanade of the Mosques, one of the holiest sites in Islam.
The paradox of Netanyahu’s predicament is jarring: he will address one of the premiere events in American Jewish political life, an audience he betrayed in order to save his hold on power, just as the coalition members he betrayed them for threaten his hold on power once again.
The issue convulsing Israel now is the ultra-Orthodox parties’ refusal to allow their communities’ young men to be drafted into the Israeli army, as almost all Israeli 18-year-olds are.
For now, none of the parties are backing down, and Israeli political analysts predict elections by June.
But most threatening for Netanyahu remain the police investigations. On Feb. 13, the police recommended he be indicted in two separate cases of corruption, fraud and breach of trust.
On Friday, the police announced he and his wife were both criminal suspects in a third case, the telecom investigation.
As has become something of a ritual after every police examination, Netanyahu filmed a short video for his Facebook page on Friday, once again assuring Israelis “there’s nothing there.”
“Happy Purim from Jerusalem!” he said, invoking a joyful Jewish festival. “Minutes before the sabbath, from Jerusalem, I want to let you know, I feel confident, because there won’t be anything, and I want to say one more thing, to the millions of Israeli citizens, who express such strong support for me, for my spouse and for my family, you warm our hearts, thank you, and Shabbat shalom.”
Israel is in uncharted waters. The last time a prime minister faced legal accusations, in 2008, Ehud Olmert resigned before the police recommended his indictment. The legal process before he went to jail took eight years.
Netanyahu is threatening to remain in place even if indicted, a matter that has never been tested by Israeli law. The notion that elections might buy him time was swatted down on Sunday by Amit Segal, the KANN television channel’s political analyst, who said “that’s just not the way it works under the rule of law.”
But first, Netanyahu resorted to his tried and true favorites, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, as if trying to win in the court of social media what he may lose in the courts of law (another parallel with Trump).
Embarking on his flight at 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, he walked into the journalists’ cabin on his plane, then called out to his wife. “Saraleh, the love of my life,” to whom he handed a bouquet of flowers in celebration of their 27th anniversary. That went up on Twitter.
Upon landing in Washington, Sara and Bibi, Netanyahu’s nickname, offered Israelis a private tour of Blair House, “the official guest house for close visitors,” the prime minister explained, which immediately was posted to Instagram.