Charged and charged up: 10 things to know for March 1
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Charged and charged up: 10 things to know for March 1

Battle lines are being drawn as Benjamin Netanyahu prepares for the fight of his life and the justice system details allegations described as ‘worse than thought’

Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media in the Prime Minister House in Jerusalem on February 28, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media in the Prime Minister House in Jerusalem on February 28, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

1. Quotable charges: There’s only one thing on the Israeli press agenda Friday morning, the indictment (pending a hearing) of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges mostly stemming from his alleged attempts to buy influence with the press.

  • Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit did not hold back in his 57-page charge sheet, addressing Netanyahu directly and using what the LA Times describes as “blistering” language to level accusations of bribery, breach of trust and more at him.
  • Taking their cue from him, papers quote liberally and prominently from the indictment announcement.
  • “You abused your authority while taking into account other considerations that relate to your personal interests and the interests of your family. You corrupted public servants working under you,” reads a quote from the indictment, taking up much of the above-the-fold real estate in broadsheet Haaretz.
  • “A systematic enlistment of Walla in exchange for orchestration of your government power,” reads a top headline in Yedioth Ahronoth.

2. Much worse: ToI’s Raoul Wootliff rounds up the whole kit and caboodle of what Mandelblit is accusing Netanyahu of, from a “serious conflict of interest,’ in the least serious case in which he is accused of taking gifts from wealthy businessmen, to “knowing you were taking a bribe,” in the most serious case, involving suspicions Netanyahu gave the owner of the Walla news site regulatory favors worth hundreds of millions in exchange for positive coverage.

  • Haaretz’s Gidi Weitz calls the charge sheet “deadly, shameful and solid.”
  • “Netanyahu will never be involved in bribery, because he can’t give anyone anything ever,” Weitz quotes the late jurist, and friend of Netanyahu, Jacob Weinroth joking.
  • Channel 13’s Raviv Drucker writes that the allegations are “on levels that are much worse than we thought.”

3. Backing Bibi: Israel Hayom, widely viewed as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu, lives up to its reputation, also leading off with the quote, this one from Netanyahu, calling the indictment an “inhuman witch-hunt.”

  • Columnists in the paper call the charges everything from “a blow to democracy” to “an expression of pathological hate.”
  • “What bad has he done to anyone,” writes Haim Shine. “The state is thriving, the economy is booming, Israel is a power, and from morning until evening they only send hatred and evilness and disrupt democracy.”
  • That argument follows the playbook laid out by Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer, who writes that his backers have switched from trying to defend his innocence to trying to explain why it doesn’t matter if he is corrupt.
  • “There’s a new tone. It is saying that no matter what Netanyahu is accused of and what he may have done, Israel needs him. If he is forced to leave, Israel’s security will be in jeopardy, so stop making such a fuss about a few cigars and some friendly articles on a website,” he writes.

4. Waiting to be heard: Before actual charges can be filed, Netanyahu will have to go through a hearing process, which could take a year or more.

  • ToI’s Raphael Ahren notes that actual charges against Netanyahu aren’t expected to be filed before 2020. And with Netanyahu fighting for his political survival, he’s expected to drag it out as much as possible.
  • Walla news notes that the hearing will likely consist of Netanyahu and his legal team repeating the same claims they have made before to the public about his crimes not being actual crimes.

5. How will it affect elections? Even if it takes a year or more, Netanyahu’s fortunes will be tested well before then, with elections on the horizon.

  • “The protracted legal battle at the heart of this affair is not the prime minister’s urgent priority,” ToI editor David Horovitz writes. “First, there is the political battle — to see off opposition calls for his resignation and to persuade his colleagues, many of them potential rivals, that he remains an asset, a vote-winner, the leader who will secure their political good fortune. To persuade them, in short, that despite the announcement or even because of it, he will secure re-election.”
  • Though Likud has argued that releasing the charges before elections will sway the vote in an undemocratic matter, Israel Hayom’s Matti Tuchfeld admits that “nobody has any idea” how the decision will actually play out at the voting booth.
  • But Martin Indyk tells PBS Newshour that things will not look good for the prime minister. “There’s going to be this steady drip of revelations about what he said to various people that will sound very corrupt. And I think that’s going to be a real challenge for him as he heads into this election on April 9.”
  • Yedioth’s Sima Kadmon quotes someone close to Netanyahu telling her that if he does lose the election, he still won’t quit, and will lead the opposition, or try to broker a unity government deal.

6. Putsch speech: Netanyahu isn’t giving up yet, delivering a sharp speech to the media Thursday night dismissing the allegations and casting aspersions on the judicial process.

  • Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev writes that Netanyahu’s speech was essentially intended to suborn his supporters into a “putsch” against the rule of law should he be re-elected, comparing his legal woes to those of US President Donald Trump.
  • “In both the American and Israeli cases, political polarization and the consistent demonization of rivals have made the retention of power into the be all and end all for supporters of both leaders. Adhering to the rule of law and playing by the rules of the game are values increasingly shunned by both the Israeli and American right-wing. The liberal left is the devil incarnate and the battle against it is a holy war that trumps increasingly anachronistic concepts of the fair play, honesty in government and supremacy of the law. If preserving power means undermining public trust in the legal system and its chief officers, so be it.”
  • In Bloomberg, though, Noah Feldman writes that the charges prove that the rule of law is alive and well in Israel.
  • “What’s good about the charges is that they demonstrate that Israel’s governing institutions are robust enough to enforce the criminal laws of the country, even in the face of tremendous political pressure from the country’s longest-serving leader,” he writes.

7. No media culpa: One thing that’s missing from much of the punditry surrounding the indictments is any soul-searching at the hands of media outlets caught up in the bribery scheme.

  • While neither Walla or Yedioth shy from covering the allegations, there is also no mea culpa or anything coming close to it from them.
  • Even in the Seventh Eye, Itamar Baz writes that the charge sheet is horrifying for journalists, because of “how it describes the systematic behavior of a ruler who sees no value in a free press, and devotes efforts daily to trying to conquer it and turn it into a tool.”
  • On Army Radio, Labor MK Eitan Cabel says “Journalists and politicians … have conversations all the time, but there’s a huge difference between that and having a conversation about a quid pro quo.”
  • An excellent thread on Twitter by Haaretz’s Pfeffer goes through some of the pettiness on display in the charge sheet, and he notes that there should also be serious questions about whether Israel Hayom should be held to account as a propaganda tool.

8. No partner? Another thing not many are looking at is how the indictment could possibly play into peace negotiations.

Ghaith Al Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, tells The National that “the peace plan was widely expected to be released immediately after the upcoming Israeli elections but with the potential indictment and the emergence of serious political challengers in the Israeli election, [it] create[s] uncertainties that may impact the timing of the plan’s release.”

9. Warren weighs in: There will be some pretty awkward times should Netanyahu manage to hold on to power and Democrat Elizabeth Warren ascend to the White House.

  • Warren on Twitter writes “First embracing right-wing extremism. Now manipulating a free press, accepting bribes, and trading government favors. The allegations against Prime Minister Netanyahu are serious and cut to the heart of a functioning democracy.”
  • She also calls corruption “a cancer.”
  • Warren is the second Democratic candidate to speak out against Netanyahu after Amy Klobuchar also had some stern words for him earlier this week, though centered on the Otzma Yehudit deal.

10. This again? Meanwhile, Democrat Ilhan Omar is facing fire for telling a Washington crowd that those accusing her of anti-Semitism are doing so because she is Muslim, a claim first reported by Jewish Insider.

  • Perhaps more damning, she also says that “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
  • The comment is widely taken to be a reference to AIPAC and support for Israel, once again touching a third rail.
  • “Accusing Jews of “allegiance to a foreign country” is a historically classic way of delegitimizing their participation in the political system. Whether or not the foreign policy agenda endorsed by American supporters of Israel is wise or humane, it is a legitimate expression of their political rights as American citizens,” an outraged Jonathan Chait writes in New York Magazine.
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