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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 23rd March 2018 > THE FALL OF KING BIBI?

THE FALL OF KING BIBI?

If a series of corruption scandals force BENJAMIN NETANYAHU out of office, he will leave behind a country that is deeply, perhaps irreparably, DIVIDED
JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY

WHEN BENJAMIN NETANYAHU VISITED WASHINGTON earlier this month, it should have been a political triumph, a moment of exultation. For most of his 12 years in power, the hawkish Israeli prime minister was forced to work with presidents who despised him, left-leaning Democrats who talked about settlements and Palestinian statehood. Now, he has Donald Trump. Their March 5 meeting at the White House was the first since the U.S. announced plans to relocate the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem this spring. Israeli politicians had long demanded the move; Netanyahu was the one to deliver it. Ever the flatterer, he compared Trump to Cyrus, the Persian ruler who freed his Jewish subjects 2,500 years ago and let them return to Jerusalem. From there, it was off to the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, where Netanyahu and his wife were greeted with standing ovations, a warmer welcome than anything he would find back home.

And yet the whole trip was spoiled from the start. Hours before Netanyahu met with Trump, Israelis learned that one of the prime minister’s closest advisers had turned against him. Nir Hefetz, a former journalist, has been described as “Netanyahu’s spin doctor,” the man responsible for massaging press coverage of the first couple. But after Hefetz’s arrest in February, he agreed to turn state’s evidence and hand over recordings of the Netanyahus discussing an alleged criminal conspiracy. He is the third confidante of the prime minister known to have cooperated with the authorities in recent months.

Netanyahu acted as if nothing was wrong. He is, after all, Israel’s second-longest-serving prime minister. He has survived police investigations before, as far back as his first term, in the 1990s. “There will be nothing because there is nothing,” he has said, dismissing the latest spates of corruption probes. And critics have made a career of underestimating him. Before the last election, in 2015, Israelis were convinced Netanyahu was finished. The vote would hinge on the economy, they predicted, and the prime minister had little to offer (he didn’t even bother releasing an economic program). He won anyway, in decisive fashion.

JERUSALEM’S LOT Bibi has lorded over Israel’s political scene for 10 years. Now, he seems vulnerable. a view of Jerusalem
MICHAEL JACOBS/ART IN ALL OF US/CORBIS/GETTY

Yet even his allies are starting to whisper that this visit to Washington was his last. After years of investigations, the police are closing in; the cases against him grow more substantive by the day. The attorney general will decide in the coming months whether to indict him on a slew of charges, which range from comically absurd to deathly serious. The man Time once dubbed “King Bibi” has lorded over Israel’s political scene for 10 years and planned to stay for many more. Now, suddenly, he seems vulnerable.

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THE FALL OF KING BIBI? When Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington earlier this month, it should have been a political triumph, a moment of exultation. For most of his twelve years in power, the hawkish Israeli prime minister was forced to work with presidents who despised him, left-leaning Democrats who talked about settlements and Palestinian statehood. Now, he has Donald Trump. Their March 5 meeting at the White House was the first since the U.S. announced plans to relocate the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem this spring. Israeli politicians had long demanded the move; Netanyahu was the one to deliver it. And yet the whole trip was spoiled from the start. Hours before Netanyahu met with Trump, Israelis learned that one of the prime minister’s closest advisers had turned against him. Nir Hefetz, a former journalist, has been described as “Netanyahu’s spin doctor,” the man responsible for massaging press coverage of the first couple. But after Hefetz’s arrest in February, he agreed to turn state’s evidence and hand over recordings of the Netanyahus discussing an alleged criminal conspiracy. If a series of corruption scandals force Netanyahu out of office, he will leave behind a country that is deeply, perhaps irreparably, divided.