By Mitchell A. Belfer
As America decides its future within the next few days, it is a fitting moment to contemplate the impact of a new U.S foreign policy on one of its most important allies: Israel. Middle East politics is again ablaze, but it is easy for pundits to miss the huge controversy brewing around Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he to keep his composure under the weight of unfriendly allegations.
It is easy; but it is wrong. It is often said that foreign affairs often ends up distracting US Presidents – when Congress frustrates their domestic policies.
And, whoever is sworn into the Oval Office in January, the next US President may well be distracted by the Middle East in the first few months.
With Israel’s Channel 2 reporting back in early September about an inquiry into claims that Netanyahu had solicited bribe, something which he vehemently denies, this may be the trigger Israel needs to galvanize people against political mismanagement at the highest levels.
A recent piece by Ben Caspit, respected columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse, was headlined: “Will Bibi’s love of luxury be his downfall?”
Add to this the likelihood of a Hilary Clinton win in the presidential election – as opposed to the Donald Trump, whom Netanyahu has posed with – all does not bode well for the Israeli PM’s “Iron Dome” of political protection he has enjoyed in the past from Republicans.
According to Haaretz, Israel’s oldest newspaper, the country’s High Court has instructed the Attorney General, the heads of the State Prosecution and Israeli Police to explain within 30 days why they have not opened an investigation into the PM’s conduct. There have also been claims about a Netanyahu adviser who received funding from a non-profit organisation in the US.
According to Israeli media, the Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit blocked the investigation, despite assertions of fraud by senior Israeli police officers. Reports claim that 20 witnesses have already testified in preliminary inquiries over corruption and fraud, although unless solid evidence is produced, there will be no official police investigation and the inquiry will be stopped.
Allies of Netanyahu are being questioned.
Last week, the French news agency AFP reported that Israeli police planned to question US billionaire and World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder as part of an inquiry into offering gifts to Netanyahu.
According to the French news agency, Lauder “refused to be questioned after arriving in the country for the funeral of ex-president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres, Channel 2 television reported.” The report stated that an agreement had been reached so that investigators will either travel to New York in the next few weeks, or Lauder would return to Israel.
“I am coming from a commemoration for the Babi Yar massacre (the execution of more than 34,000 Jews by the Nazis in Ukraine), and I arrive for the funeral of a good friend … and you arrest me?” he said, according to Channel 2.
AFP said that an Israeli police spokeswoman declined to comment on the reports.
The agency said that authorities “have been investigating spending and gifts related to Netanyahu, though Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has stressed that a formal investigation has not been opened.
At the same time, “Israeli newspaper Haaretz claimed that police want to question Lauder over gifts he allegedly gave Netanyahu and alleged covering his trip expenses. Lauder, whose family founded the Estee Lauder cosmetics firm, is known to be an avid supporter of Netanyahu. However, relations between the two have cooled as more information surfaces in relation to allegations that Lauder financed Netanyahu’s travels in 2011.
“Netanyahu and his aides have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing,” and certainly that is the narrative they will follow. But this story – while continuing to unfold – is more than just another case of political intrigue in one of the Middle East’s few examples of dynamic political life.
If the allegations prove to be accurate, then the case punches holes into the trust-based society that Israel was founded on. People are already at their wits end with what they see as systemic failures of governance under Netanyahu’s watch.
That the story potentially includes Ronald Lauder, the President of the World Jewish Congress, is doubly problematic since it threatens to drag American and European Jewry into Israeli judicial and political life.
A case of this magnitude may be exactly what is needed to deal out the old guard in Israel and among International Jewry; and deal in a more inclusive set of decision makers that have national interests in mind more than personal gains.
Dr. Mitchell A. Belfer is the founder and Head of the Department of International Relations and European Studies at Metropolitan University Prague, Czech Republic, and Editor in Chief of the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies (CEJISS).