Editorial: Between Coercion and Corruption

After his "tunnel" mistake, Netanyahu finally seems to be reconciling with the Palestinian Authority, the Arab world, the Europeans and above all the Americans. Yet, an internal scandal now threatens to undermine his post as Prime Minister. It began on January 22 when correspondent Ayala Hason of Israel's Channel One discovered a conspiracy in connection with the nomination of the Government's Legal Advisor (GLA). According to Hason, the chief culprit was Shas leader Arieh Der'i, who is currently standing trial for various criminal offenses. The story goes that Der'i wanted a weak GLA who would agree to let him off on a comfortable plea bargain, so he lobbied aggressively (behind the scenes) for Attorney Roni Bar'on. Bar'on accepted the nomination, but then resigned because of massive criticism from both the government and the public.

Word has it that Der'i threatened to remove his party from Netanyahu's coalition if the Prime Minister wouldn't support this nomination. If it is proven that Netanyahu yielded to such a threat, he and his entire entourage will be handed with charge sheets. Netanyahu was investigated by the police upon his return from the US on February 17. According to information leaked from the investigation, Netanyahu was so elusive that at a certain point the police had to put him under "half warning."

Nine months since the election, and for the first time in Israeli history, the prime minister is being investigated by the police on suspicion of "breaching public confidence." The implications are serious -- not only for the Likud, but for the state of Israel. Israel first discovered its potential for dangerous internal instability when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on November 4, 1995. At that time, an assembly of world leaders attended the funeral in order to re-assure the shaken country. To overcome its traditional electoral split (Likud-Labor), Israel adopted the system of direct election of the Prime Minister. Yet this system also granted the prime minister a new level of unchecked power. Netanyahu thought he could surround himself with a fortress of loyalists and do what he pleased, while disregarding the law, his own cabinet members and the public. This assumption has become his demise.

The latest scandal in the Likud party put Labor leaders in a difficult position -- they were not hasty to jump into the fray. To criticize Arieh Der'i would be to undermine a potential alliance with Shas in the future. Moreover, Peres knows that he can return to power only if he is called into a National Unity government; therefore, he cannot defame his potential governmental allies. If Netanyahu is criminally charged and new elections are called for, Labor's chances of winning are - as usual - half. Should his party win, however, Peres himself would have to give way to Labor's new star, the ex-general Ehud Barak.

On a broader scale: what Netanyahu did in the internal arena of Israeli politics, Labor has done in the external arena. As the architect of Oslo, Labor used its extensive power (militarily and internationally) to coerce the Palestinians and the Arab world into accepting its policy. However, the use of sheer power doesn't solve problems; it conceals them. Many of Israel's' internal contradictions and aggressive politics stem from the country's basic assumption that it can get away with everything by force. It is no wonder that Netanyahu, despite his internal problems, sees eye to eye with Labor on the outlines of the final status agreement. Netanyahu came to the US with the following plan: 52 percent of the West Bank, including most settlements, will remain under Israeli rule, and Jerusalem will remain united under Israeli jurisdiction. Netanyahu emphasized that internally, Israel has no deep controversies over the map of the final status. The concept of "A State Minus" for the Palestinians concurs with Labor's vision, he said. (Ha'aretz, 13.2.97)

Many liberals are now hoping that Netanyahu will have to resign. But this is not the recipe for a comprehensive and just solution. The lesson to be learned from this episode is that a state which is based on coercion, which violates human rights and encourages its allies (the PA) to do the same, cannot be internally immune to deception and corruption.