A few days ago, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political future looked to be quickly fading amid a heap of legal troubles, some pundits predicted that he and his backers would not give up without a fight, the result of which would be an ugly scrap in which everybody on both sides of the case is watched with an ultra-jaundiced eye and nobody escapes suspicion.
Not surprisingly, the battle is mostly being played out in the press, where the struggle for hearts and minds finds its most resonant expression, and on Sunday night, a bombshell against the prosecution was dropped on Channel 10.
Shrapnel from the news that a judge and investigator had coordinated arrests in what’s popularly known as case 4000, in which the Communications Ministry is suspected of kicking back favors to Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitz in exchange for positive media coverage of Netanyahu and family, slices through the print media Monday morning. Everybody agrees what the two did was wrong and needs to be dealt with, but whether they see the shrapnel wound from the affair as fatal or just a cut depends largely on their outlook regarding the prime minister.
The story leads all three major dailies, and both tabloids Israel Hayom and Yedioth Ahronoth play the story huge, the latter with a sense of gloating, and the former with a bitter forehead slap.
Israel Hayom calls the scandal a “crisis of confidence” and includes several screenshots of the damning WhatsApp conversation in which they talk about the arrests and judge Ronit Poznanski-Katz is counseled by Eran Shaham-Shavit, the head of the Israel Securities Authority investigations department, to look surprised.
“It has been a long time since a case so far outside the norms has been in Israel’s judicial landscape and it’s still impossible to even begin to estimate what the long-term results of it will be,” the paper reports.
The judge may have tried to look surprised, but columnist Haim Shine doesn’t even bother, saying the case is just the clearest example of a bankrupt justice system.
“The unending witchhunt against the prime minister long ago crossed all judicial boundaries and is deeply rooted in criminology and psychiatry. Women and men who are normally intelligent have started to act like irresponsible robots, without inhibitions in breaking the foundations of integrity and basic fairness, foundations needed to ensure Israeli democracy,” he writes.
In Yedioth, Nahum Barnea also calls what the two did “ridiculous” and says it places a stain on the whole justice system, no matter if the suspects they were dealing with are guilty or not.
“Before yesterday, it was clear enough who the good guys were and who were the bad guys. Now it’s a little less clear. To use a sports analogy, the judge and prosecutor scored an own-goal in a decisive game, when it was tied, in the 90th minute,” he writes.
But how bad is the damage? In a column titled “Bibi’s luck” in the same paper, analyst Sima Kadmon calls Shaham-Shavit “an idiot” whose damage will be difficult, if not impossible, to undo, but also counsels against giving up on the investigation over it.
“One can guess what kind of gloating there will be in certain circles today. How this affair will immediately throw away the whole Case 4000, and who will make use of it to show that it’s further proof of an obsessive witchhunt to bring about regime change. There’s no escaping noting that for the umpteenth time Fortuna, the Roman god of luck, has once again tied her fate to that of Netanyahu,” she writes. “But don’t be confused: The messages exposed last night are bad to an immeasurable degree and need to be taken care of immediately, but there’s nothing in there to testify against the evidence uncovered by the ISA or the police.”
Similarly in Haaretz, columnist Ido Baum, who days ago called an affair in which a Netanyahu confidant seemed to offer a former judge the attorney general job as a kickback for closing a case against Sara Netanyahu the worst corruption in the country’s history, now downplays how big an impact the affair may have.
“What happened is serious and saddening, but it’s just a side anecdote. It won’t keep law enforcement from investigating the Bezeq case and all its branching parts,” he writes.
It’s not just the prosecution that may be immune to dirty deeds. Another front page column in the broadsheet by editor Aluf Benn focuses on the prime minister’s continuing popularity despite his entanglement in legal woes.
“According to the most recent polls, the Israeli public thinks Netanyahu is corrupt but is afraid of losing him. For nine years, the public has not considered anyone except Netanyahu as a proper leader. The investigations have not changed anything, and have not put any serious contender on the field to succeed him. The reason is not just the tribal unity of members of his Likud party against the ‘left and elites’ that control the legal system and defense establishment (which is the common belief). Netanyahu’s popularity rests primarily on his achievements – and we must not take them lightly,” he writes. “As long as this situation lasts – the security respite, stable leadership and the feeling of prosperity – many Israelis will follow Netanyahu’s meetings with his police investigators with trepidation, even if they believe he is guilty.”
Benn notes that one of Netanyahu’s achievements has been the ability to keep Israeli control of the West Bank going without losing too much in international support.
In Israel Hayom’s op-ed page Zalman Shoval also notes that the Palestinians have pretty much fallen off the world agenda, not necessarily thanks to Netanyahu, but rather US President Donald Trump doing what he wants and Ramallah’s inability to bypass the US.
“The world is busy with other crises, mostly North Korea, and pretty much has no interest in the Palestinian issue. At the Munich Security Conference, for instance, the issue was pushed far to the margins,” he writes. “Even placing the Security Council at the center of the process is a mistake as no American administration, especially not Donald Trump’s, will allow the body to lead on policies that are not coordinated with its own.”