The first time Benjamin Netanyahu was publicly burnt by his love for cigars came in May 2005. Walking into a cabinet meeting with a lit cigar, the then finance minister turned a corner in the Knesset and ran into a group of his colleagues talking to reporters, remembers Ben Caspit, author of a recent biography of the Israeli prime minister.
Faced with the possibility of being photographed smoking a pricey cigar — not a good look for any politician — Mr Netanyahu stuck the lit cigar into his suit pocket.
Within seconds, his jacket was smoking. “Minister Netanyahu, you’re burning up,” yelped a radio host, as a coalition partner helped Mr Netanyahu fish the burning cigar out of his pocket before his suit caught fire.
It’s tempting to view the incident as an allegory for Mr Netanyahu’s current troubles. Hounded relentlessly by nonstop leaks in sections of the Israeli press, and facing the prospect of being charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust for accepting nearly $300,000 in gifts over 10 years, including cigars for himself and pink bubbly and jewellery for his wife from wealthy, connected businessmen, Mr Netanyahu’s political career is perilously close to going up in smoke.
For now, his coalition partners are helping keep things from catching fire. But last week, Mr Netanyahu, who has led the young country almost as long and certainly as forcefully as its founding father, David Ben-Gurion, woke up to headlines predicting his imminent demise.
“This guy thinks he can hide a lit cigar in his pocket and nothing will happen,” says Mr Caspit, a scathing critic of the prime minister. “But now the truth is coming out fast, and still ahead of us is a lot more. When the wall starts to crack, everybody tries to run and a lot of mice will try to leave a sinking ship.”
The latest revelation, in the dizzying constellation of allegations of wrongdoing by the prime minister and his associates, has proved the most damaging. Last week, his long-time confidant Shlomo Filber, a man the media nicknamed the “Black Box” for his reputation for keeping Mr Netanyahu’s secrets for nearly two decades, decided to spill some of them to the police.
Mr Filber, who helped run Mr Netanyahu’s campaigns, was until recently the director-general of the ministry of communications that regulates the media industry. There, investigators say, Mr Filber helped hammer out a deal between the prime minister and the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, a large telecom company. In exchange for favourable coverage for Mr Netanyahu and his wife Sara on a leading news website, the company was to receive regulatory benefits, according to the police.
Mr Netanyahu has forcefully denied the allegations, and all the others, which, in at least five separate probes, include expensive gifts given to help an Israel-born Hollywood producer gain a 10-year US visa; an offer by one of his associates to a sitting judge of the job of attorney-general, in exchange for dropping an investigation into Mr Netanyahu’s wife; and a quid pro quo deal with one newspaper magnate for favourable coverage in exchange for helping dent the circulation of a rival.
So large is the shadow Mr Netanyahu casts over Israel that the entire nation, and much of the world, refers to him as Bibi, his childhood nickname. The son of a celebrated rightwing Zionist, the brother of a soldier killed in the daring raid at Entebbe airport in Uganda, a decorated, twice-wounded fighter himself and the product of an elite education, Bibi was destined for success. On his watch, Israel has turned inexorably right, bringing ultra-orthodox politics firmly into the cabinet, while fighting two wars in Gaza. Yet polls show Mr Netanyahu would win a snap election.
“He’s a fighter, and he has fought for decades,” says Aviv Bushinsky, who once worked as Mr Netanyahu’s media adviser. “This is the battle of his life, and he has no alternative but to fight it. If he loses, it will be a bitter defeat. The sum of the allegations against him are a stain on his legacy.”
For Mr Netanyahu, a fourth-term prime minister in a country where unwieldy coalitions regularly collapse, the allegations raise questions over whether this could be the end of his stellar career. As yet, his political allies have issued carefully hedged support, but were he to be indicted by the attorney-general, that could easily switch to a demand for an immediate resignation.
Mr Netanyahu has fought back, accusing the police and the media of witch-hunts and targeting his wife and son, who have both had embarrassing private conversations aired on national television. The police investigation, ostensibly confidential, has leaked almost nonstop.
For nearly a decade, says Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a board member of the National Press Council, Mr Netanyahu has tried to shape the media landscape to suit himself, with controversial regulatory changes overseen by Mr Filber. Meanwhile, he has received generally positive coverage from a hugely popular free newspaper owned by US billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
That reflects, she says, a “deeper, older, almost psychological urge”, from when he won his first election as prime minister in 1996. “He realised that day that he had won against the will of the media, and that he needed to discredit it and try and go directly to the people,” she says. “He has largely succeeded — until two months ago, he had no fear of the media. Now, that’s changed.”
The writer is the FT’s Jerusalem correspondent
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