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Op-eds

Zuma’s downfall holds lessons for King Bibi

  • Steven Gruzd
Israel crashed into unchartered waters last Thursday when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced the indictment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. In three separate corruption cases, Netanyahu is accused of accepting luxury gifts from rich friends and granting favours to telecoms and media tycoons in return for positive news coverage.
by STEVEN GRUZD | Nov 28, 2019

Netanyahu hit back, declaring the move an “attempt to stage a coup”. For months, he has portrayed the charges as a “witch hunt” concocted by despised left-wing opponents who’ve failed to beat him at the ballot box. He has called for his investigators to be investigated by an independent enquiry.

In a press conference, a defiant Netanyahu said, “I will continue to lead this country according to the letter of the law. I will not allow lies to win.” There is no law forcing him to resign at this stage.

South Africans can identify with a head of government who protests his innocence and stubbornly clings to power. What light might the (eventual) political downfall of South Africa’s former President Jacob Zuma cast on Israel’s situation?

Both Zuma and Netanyahu were skilfully able to manipulate positions of apparent weakness into those of great strength, not least by playing the victim.

Zuma, like Netanyahu, is a consummate survivor. Stripped of the deputy presidency in 2005 by President Thabo Mbeki amid serious corruption and rape allegations, Zuma roared back to seize the presidency of the African National Congress (ANC) in 2007 at Polokwane. Within a year, the tables had turned. Mbeki was dumped from the presidency by the party, and Zuma became the country’s president after the 2009 election.

If Zuma’s first term was marked by the scandal over wasted taxpayer millions on upgrades to his Nkandla homestead, his second term will be remembered for rampant corruption, the greed of the Gupta brothers, and state capture. Dubbed “the Teflon President”, nothing seemed to stick to Zuma. He refused to resign, and survived eight votes of no confidence in the national assembly, protected by the ANC’s majority in parliament.

Mastering the rollercoaster of coalition politics in a very different milieu to the ANC’s dominance, Netanyahu has surpassed David Ben-Gurion’s number of days in office. Netanyahu was prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009 until now. Israel, unlike South Africa, doesn’t have term limits.

In Israel’s second election in 2019, once again no-one has managed to cobble together a coalition. This means Netanyahu remains in power. Politicians have exhibited a toxic mix of stubbornness and greed over compromise and the national interest. If a government doesn’t emerge in the next two weeks, the Jewish state will face its third poll in less than a year.

Netanyahu’s indictment could be the game changer.

Has Bibi finally become more of a liability than an asset for his Likud party? One of his party rivals, Gideon Sa’ar, said that if a third election occurred, Likud members should rethink their leadership. Israeli TV channels are circulating claims that senior Likud officials have the knives out for Netanyahu before the looming third election. This is a long shot, only likely if they can unite around a single successor in a party stuffed with Bibi acolytes and massive egos.

Because, ultimately, it wasn’t the opposition, or the courts, or civil society, or the media that toppled Zuma. It was his own party. The victory of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC leader in December 2017 over Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, signalled the beginning of the end. When Zuma refused to resign two months later, it was announced he was being “recalled” by the ANC. Facing a ninth no-confidence vote that he was now sure to lose, Zuma resigned on 14 February 2018. Ramaphosa was installed as president the following day. The party that had protected Zuma for almost a decade turned on him in a heartbeat. Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule in Zimbabwe was similarly snuffed out by his party.

Don’t count King Bibi out just yet. Like Zuma, he is likely to tie his cases up in the courts for years with appeals and other legal manoeuvres. His next move will probably be to seek immunity from prosecution from the Knesset, made more complicated by the coalition logjam. Experts say it might take up to seven years to secure a conviction. By that time, Netanyahu will be 77.

  • Steven Gruzd is an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs

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