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Bibi Agonistes

What’s behind Netanyahu’s fresh legal troubles?

Tal Kra-Oz
February 14, 2018
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to speak to world leaders at the 72nd United Nations (UN) General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 19, 2017 in New York City.Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to speak to world leaders at the 72nd United Nations (UN) General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 19, 2017 in New York City.Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“Re: Conclusion of investigations on Case 1000 and Case 2000”

Thus began the memo, circulated yesterday evening by the Israeli police, which may spell the beginning of the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s career. The police recommended that Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust—all jailable offenses. It is now up to state prosecutors to examine the evidence collected by the police, weigh the chances of a conviction in court, and decide whether to move forward with indictments.

Case 1000 concerns the receipt of gifts by Netanyahu and his family worth about NIS 1,000,000, or just over $280,000, from two billionaire benefactors, the US-based Israeli producer Arnon Milchan and the Australian casino magnate James Packer. For much of the past year, Israeli media has been awash with reports of fancy cigars, jewelry and pink champagne. Though initial investigations focused on the gifts themselves, the police were eventually able to identify at least five separate occasions where Netanyahu flexed his prime ministerial muscle on Milchan’s behalf, including assisting him with his media interests in Israel and reaching out to senior American officials to help him extend his United States visa. The police said that the relationship between the two men – who call each other old friends – was rooted in bribery, and recommended indicting them both on that count (the police apparently could not prove what Netanyahu did on Packer’s behalf, and recommended Netanyahu be charged with fraud and breach of trust apropos the gifts he received from Packer).

Netanyahu’s strongest card with the Israeli public with regards to the allegations – setting aside for a moment his prodigious political talents – is the inherent murkiness of contemporary white-collar crime. The corruption charges against Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu’s predecessor, could fill a phone book, but he was ultimately jailed—and spent nearly a year-and-a-half in prison – for accepting bribes in the amount of NIS 60,000, or just over $15,000. But that was cash and these are cigars and pink champagne. Hence, the Netanyahu government’s favorite talking point: “you don’t topple a government over cigars and champagne”. Sometimes expensive cigars, even when delivered in bulk wholesale amounts upon receipt of coded purchase orders from the Netanyahus, are just cigars.

Case 2000 is even less traditional. The key evidence is a series of recordings, made at Netanyahu’s request, of conversations between himself and Arnon “Noni” Mozes, publisher of Israel’s leading daily paper, Yedioth Ahronoth. The two men—commonly regarded as arch-enemies—were recorded discussing mutually beneficial arrangements at length. Netanyahu offered to exert his influence with Sheldon Adelson, owner of Israel Hayom, Yedioth’s biggest competitor, to decrease that tabloid’s circulation, or to back Knesset legislation to similar effect, severely cutting down on Yedioth’s competition for eyeballs and advertising dollars in the process. In return, Mozes offered an about-face in his paper’s coverage of Netanyahu. It is difficult to pin a price tag on such offers, not because they are trifles, as Netanyahu would have you believe, but because they are priceless.

(The elephant in the room continues to be Israel Hayom: Netanyahu’s favored narrative is that Adelson, who just happened to be a close confidant of his, just happened to launch a risky, cash-guzzling enterprise, which just happens to be an unabashed Netanyahu mouthpiece. If Netanyahu had the real authority to make proposals on Israel Hayom’s behalf the way he did when he negotiated with Mozes, then Israel Hayom isn’t just the result of a happy series of coincidences but perhaps the largest uninvestigated case of political graft in this country’s history.)

This morning Netanyahu continued to repeat his mantra that the allegations are baseless and will end with nothing, though the vast majority of the facts are undisputed, and everything hinges on their legal interpretation. While the police recommendations carry more weight than Netanyahu likes to suggest – at the very least, they have sent the political sphere into a tailspin – the case will ultimately be decided by Avichai Mandelblit, the attorney general and former close aide. Netanyahu is right that previous investigations against him have not resulted in indictments, despite the police sometimes recommending otherwise. The almost comical issues under investigation in the past—the Netanyahu family pilfering state-owned garden furniture from their official residence to replace dated furniture in their private residence comes to mind—will easily lead you to believe both that the media will stop at nothing to land the Netanyahus hot water, and that the Netanyahus will go to ridiculous lengths to get the Jewish State to foot every last one of their bills. Sara Netanyahu is expected to soon be indicted for arranging approximately $100,000 worth of chef-cooked meals at the state’s expense without proper authorization and using false invoices.

Netanyahu’s willingness—à la Trump—to cast aside the trappings of his position and verbally attack law enforcement in order to apply pressure on ongoing investigations is unprecedented for an Israeli prime minister. Whether he did even more than that is an open question. Roni Alsheikh, Israel’s Police Commissioner, recently claimed in an interview that “powerful elements” involved in the investigations against Netanyahu tried to collect information about police officers. Evidence has yet to be presented to the public, and Netanyahu has strongly denied the allegations. This case – with Netanyahu’s word against Alsheikh’s—has the potential to be another bombshell, and should by all accounts result in the premature retirement of one of the two men.

The political arena has reacted predictably to the recommendations, across stark partisan lines. When it was revealed that MK Yair Lapid, the opposition’s leading candidate to replace Netanyahu, is also a key witness against him (Lapid testified that when he was Finance Minister under the previous coalition, he refused Netanyahu’s request to back a tax-holiday law that would have substantially benefited Milchan), the Likud entered blitz mode. MK Dudi Amsalem, the coalition whip, said that the first thing he was taught as a child was not to be a rat. “Nobody will ever want to sit with you,” he snarled at Lapid from the Knesset podium. “You’re a dirty telltale, a little shtinker. Have you no shame?”

When Prime Minister Olmert was under criminal investigations (but had not yet been indicted), Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, famously said that “a prime minister, sunk up to his neck in investigations, lacks the public and moral mandate to determine fateful matters for the state,” because of the real fear that such decisions would be based on political survival and not the national interest. Of course, many statesmen, under investigation or not, run a complicated political calculus when making life-or-death decisions. And Netanyahu will not be legally required to resign even if indicted, not even if convicted – not until the Supreme Court affirms his conviction (though it is doubtful his as-yet hardy coalition would last).

While questions of legality and criminality are critical, there are even more important issues at stake. The facts, as uncovered by the police, are frightening. Netanyahu is expected to be questioned in at least two additional investigations involving some of his closest associates – Cases 3000 and 4000 – where even more disturbing acts of corruption are suspected, including with regards to Israel’s national security. If you have any faith at all in Israel’s law enforcement institutions, then after yesterday’s news you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that Netanyahu’s own public and moral mandate has never been in greater peril.

Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.

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