Despite the torrent of reporting on the corruption allegations facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the gravity of his alleged crimes is not always clearly understood. Nor, either, is the gravity of the damage he is willfully inflicting upon Israel’s democracy as he seeks to extricate himself from criminal prosecution and prevent his fall from power.
Israel’s spectacularly articulate prime minister, in his frequent live television appearances to put his case to the public, depicts the charges as a house of cards of flimsy accusations, hatched by opposition parties who seek to harm the country, inflated by a media that shares the opposition agenda and loathes him for his very success, investigated by a biased and dishonest police force, overseen by a politicized state prosecution, and marshaled by a weak, incompetent attorney general who shares the leftists’ agenda.
A staggering 42 percent of Israelis, a poll found on Friday, believe the prime minister’s assertion that Avichai Mandelblit, the Netanyahu-appointed attorney general and Israel’s top legal officer, has indeed capitulated to pressure from the left and the media in announcing the intention to charge him when, in Netanyahu’s telling, there is no case for him to answer. The dense complexity of the allegations against the prime minister, presented by Mandelblit on Thursday in page after page of detailed documentation, seems to have left many others, journalists included, struggling to grasp what is at the heart of the probes.
In fact, two years of meticulous investigation, carried out by the police and overseen by the state prosecution, has produced devastating evidence of a protracted campaign by the prime minister to subvert a large section of Israel’s free media, and of illicit intervention by the prime minister to benefit complicit media moguls.
It is entirely legitimate for a criminal suspect to assert his or her innocence. It is irresponsible and dangerous, as prime minister, to seek, in the process, to weaken public confidence in the institutions of democracy. But that is precisely what Netanyahu has been doing
In addition to challenging the substance of the allegations, the prime minister is working strategically to undermine his accusers. It is entirely legitimate for a criminal suspect, whether an ordinary citizen or a prime minister, to assert his or her innocence, and to set out his or her narrative. It is irresponsible and dangerous, however, as prime minister, to seek, in the process, to discredit and weaken public confidence in the institutions of democracy. But that is precisely what Netanyahu has been doing — indeed, is doing, with ever-greater recklessness.
The Netanyahu version
In the first of the three cases against him, the prime minister argues, he got some cigars and some champagne from a good old friend, and he helped that friend, who had done important intelligence work for Israel, with his US visa difficulties. What kind of prime minister would have acted any differently, he asks, insisting there was no illicit quid pro quo.
In the second of the three cases against him, the prime minister argues, he held unremarkable, above-board discussions with the publisher of the country’s biggest-selling newspaper and most-read news site. Far from hatching an illicit quid pro quo deal with the publisher to economically hobble a rival publication with the promise of favorable coverage for him, he voted against a bill that would have advanced this arrangement (which manifestly never came to fruition), while 43 MKs who voted for the bill have never been investigated.
And in the third of the three cases against him, the prime minister claims, he is being misrepresented by ex-employees lying to save their own skins, and by the misguided attorney general, as having intervened in Israel’s telecommunications industry to benefit another old friend in return for favorable coverage on another news website, when he did no such thing. He made no decisions relating to that businessman friend that were not in line with his civil servants’ recommendations, he says, and he got maybe “two and half” positive stories on the website in question, which was routinely horrible to him.
Presented with Netanyahu’s aggrieved and elegant flourishes in a succession of live TV broadcasts, this narrative, combined with the mantra that the whole foul plot against him is designed to oust his government — the government that is keeping Israel safe from Arab enemies outside and sometimes within, that is warming Israel’s relations with major players worldwide, that is overseeing a thriving Israeli economy — is unsurprisingly proving fairly persuasive.
Even at the end of the tumultuous week in which he was formally informed that he will go on trial if he cannot convince the attorney general to change his mind during a last-ditch hearing, the polls indicate that he could yet win the April 9 elections. Especially as another of his ostensible proofs that the nefarious forces will stop at nothing to get him is that this is all deliberately coming to a head just before those elections — the better to ensure his ouster.
The specific allegations
Contrary to the prime minister’s carefully crafted self-depiction as a victim of the left, of the liars and of the fools in high places, the allegations tell a very different story. And if they are coming to a head in the feverish weeks before Israel goes to the polls, that is a consequence of his decision to move forward elections from their originally scheduled date in November.
In Case 1000, rather than some piffling gifts from a friend, and some unrelated help any man of influence would proffer to said friend, the allegations indicate a long-term and wide-ranging illicit relationship between the prime minister and the Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. At the Netanyahus’ request, Milchan provided “a supply line” of “boxes of cigars,” and “crates of champagne” for years to Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, the state prosecution alleges. In 2016, Milchan also provided jewelry to Sara Netanyahu, at her request and with the prime minister’s knowledge. Along with cigars and champagne supplied in a similar fashion by Australian businessman James Packer, the value of these consignments allegedly totaled some $200,000. In return, among other matters, the prime minister allegedly sought, on Milchan’s behalf, to widen the provisions of a controversial tax exemption law that remains inexplicably on Israel’s books despite Israel’s tax authorities’ concern that it facilitates money laundering. The law grants an income tax exemption and tax reporting exemption on income earned abroad by new immigrants and returning residents for a period of 10 years; Milchan had benefited financially from its provisions as a returning resident, and sought to have those provisions extended for a further 10 years, and Netanyahu allegedly tried to arrange this. The prime minister also allegedly acted to advance Milchan’s economic interests stemming from his part ownership of Israel’s (since renamed) Channel 10 TV station, and his interest in the (since renamed) Channel 2 TV station, and utilized Milchan’s connections when trying to arrange other allegedly illicit media deals. In this case, Netanyahu is to be charged with fraud and breach of trust.
In Case 2000, he is alleged to have conspired with the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, Arnon “Noni” Mozes, to economically hobble (including via Knesset legislation) the Sheldon Adelson-financed, pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily — a free tabloid that is the most-read paper in Israel — in return for favorable coverage by Yedioth and its sister website Ynet, the most-trafficked news site in Israel. Their highly detailed discussions allegedly continued on and off in a series of meetings for six years, some of them held secretly at the prime minister’s residence and not recorded in his official diary. Had Netanyahu succeeded, the coverage of Israel being disseminated by the country’s biggest-selling daily Yedioth, by the “news site of the state” Ynet, and by a scaled-back Israel Hayom, would have been an allegedly illicitly orchestrated chorus of praise to the achievements and abilities of Israel’s prime minister. The effort failed, Mandelblit indicates, partly because Adelson refused to go along with it. In this case, too, Netanyahu is to be charged with fraud and breach of trust.
In Case 4000, Netanyahu is alleged to have intervened illicitly, including during two full years when he also served as minister of communications, to benefit the business interests of Shaul Elovitch, the major shareholder in Israel’s telecom behemoth Bezeq. His ministerial role in two specific business deals directly or indirectly generated for Elovitch the sum of NIS 1.8 billion ($500 million), according to the interim charge sheet issued by attorney general Mandelblit on Thursday.
That document did not estimate the further financial benefit to Elovitch generated by the crude intervention allegedly overseen by Netanyahu in another aspect of Bezeq’s business. Here, a Communications Ministry director general who was leading the wholesale overhaul of Israel’s internet infrastructure — which aimed to introduce competition for Bezeq and ensure Israel efficiently upgraded to the speedy, fiber-optic based internet its high-tech economy requires — was booted out of his job in a cursory phone call by the prime minister and replaced by a longtime Netanyahu aide. This aide, Shlomo Filber, a former chief of staff at the Prime Minister’s Office who lacked the requisite expertise for the communications job, was immediately directed by Netanyahu to amend the ministry’s policies to Elovitch’s satisfaction.
The way Mandelblit describes this process, the prime minister summoned Filber to his office, informed him Elovitch was unhappy about the ministry’s strategies, and told Filber to ensure the magnate was satisfied from here on. Filber dutifully set about remaking ministry policy to Elovitch’s benefit, opening a “secret channel of communications” to Bezeq, and agreeing with Elovitch on the stalling of the telecom reform. On Netanyahu’s orders, Filber acted in a “radical departure” from the manner in which a ministry director general ought to behave, writes Mandeblit, and this led to the “extreme skewing” of ministry policy regarding Bezeq.
In one of the most significant passages of Mandelblit’s accusatory legalese, the attorney general writes as follows: “Mr. Netanyahu used his power and authority as a senior public servant to advance issues related to Mr. Elovitch’s business, and his and the Bezeq group’s economic interests, including by instructing officials who reported to him to act in a radical departure from the norm.” He goes on, damningly: “Mr. Netanyahu’s actions were carried out amid a conflict of interests, the weighing of outside considerations relating to his own and his family’s interests, and involved the corrupting of the public servants reporting to him.”
Why did Netanyahu allegedly stall a telecom reform vital to Israel’s interests, with a consequence that is felt by millions of Israelis in their sluggish internet, and that is seen in surveys that show the “startup nation” falling further and further behind its rivals on internet speed? Because, in return, the attorney general alleges, Elovitch “radically skewed” to Netanyahu’s advantage the political coverage by Walla — the Hebrew news website he owned that is second only to Ynet in its traffic.
We are not talking about an occasional puff piece here and there, the allegations make clear, but the remaking, the subverting, and the censoring of a fair-minded source of news into an outlet that did the prime minister’s bidding, with hostile coverage about him and his wife toned down, played down, blocked or removed, and hostile coverage of his rivals generated, especially around the 2013 and 2015 general elections. This is the most significant of the three cases against Netanyahu, in which he is to be charged with fraud and breach of trust and, along with Elovitch, bribery.
So much for the allegations.
Graver still — yes, graver still — and plain for all to see, have been Netanyahu’s no-holds-barred efforts to discredit the hierarchies that have brought those allegations into the public domain. As the investigations against him have intensified, the prime minister’s verbal assaults on those who dare to question him have become fiercer, and the range of targets has widened one by one, to ultimately include all the foundations upon which our free society rests.
The prime minister has repeatedly asserted that the allegations have been marshaled and inflated by a left-wing, Arab-loving political opposition that knows it cannot defeat him by fair means at the ballot box and is thus, despicably, attempting to force his ouster via the courts.
The strategy: to paint Israel’s political opposition as illegitimate and unpatriotic. Only he and his government, he insists almost daily, can be trusted with the stewardship of this tiny, multi-threatened nation.
The prime minister has further repeatedly asserted that the allegations have been relentlessly hyped by a left-wing and Bolshevik Israeli media that is in league with the political left. He disseminates this narrative directly via a new internet Likud TV channel, and via social media. But mainly, Netanyahu also delivers his repeated assaults on the media at events routinely covered live and beamed into the nation’s living rooms by that self-same ostensibly biased media, including direct broadcasts from his own offices carried uninterrupted at peak viewing time.
The strategy: to depict those parts of the media that he does not control as biased, untrustworthy, and anti-Israeli.
Netanyahu has also gradually ramped up his criticism of the police force that probed him and that last year concluded he should be charged with bribery in all three of the cases against him. (Such police recommendations have no legal weight in Israel; the final decision is that of the attorney general alone.) The effort to discredit the police culminated in Netanyahu’s direct questioning of the integrity of some of the investigating officers, asserting that the cops were out to get him from the start, and his refusal to extend the term of the national police chief, Roni Alsheich, for a customary fourth year. Alsheich was appointed by Netanyahu himself, with an impressive history and no conceivable reason to be hostile to the prime minister personally or ideologically. A former IDF officer and deputy head of the Shin Bet intelligence services, Alsheich is also an Orthodox man who as a child lived in a West Bank settlement, Kiryat Arba, that is unloved by the Israeli opposition and championed by the prime minister.
The strategy: to show the police to be corrupt and untrustworthy, with shattering potential implications for the rule of law in Israel.
Finally, in recent weeks and days, as Mandelblit finalized the formal documentation setting out the intention to indict him, Netanyahu has begun to target the state prosecution. He has alleged that he has been unfairly treated and is being framed; that he was prevented from confronting his accusers; that key witnesses who can attest to his propriety were, unaccountably, not summoned to testify. On Thursday, soon after the formal paperwork was publicized, he claimed that two of the most senior state prosecutors had pushed to indict him out of political motives — this even though one of them, Liat Ben-Ari, prosecuted his center-left predecessor Ehud Olmert, who went to jail in 2016 for corruption. And he has taken to depicting Mandelblit — his own former cabinet secretary — as a weak man who has proved unable to resist the relentless pressure of all those other forces conspiring to bring him down.
In that same speech Thursday, he went further than ever in his assault on Mandeblit, directly accusing the attorney general and his team not merely of capitulating to the left, but of being at one with them, in the bid to bring him down: “For the first time in Israel’s history, a [criminal] hearing process was launched a few days before elections,” he noted. “Everyone can see that the timing is scandalous, intended to topple the right and help the left rise to power. There’s no other explanation for the insistence on this timing. This is their purpose, to flood the public with ridiculous charges against me without giving me the opportunity to disprove the charges until after the elections.”
Meanwhile, when the High Court of Justice on Thursday rejected an eleventh-hour petition by Netanyahu’s Likud to stop the publication of the interim charge sheet before the elections, his party issued a statement seeking to discredit the court, castigating the judges for choosing not to “prevent the left from blatantly intervening in the elections.”
The strategy: to paint Israel’s legal establishment as untrustworthy — as leftists, or as weaklings in the sway of the left — again, with shattering potential consequences for Israel’s rule of law.
Why is this all so dangerous? Because if the cops and the prosecutors are crooked and biased, if even the ex-army chiefs turned politicians (such as Netanyahu’s key election rival Benny Gantz) are out to harm our country, if our media cannot be trusted, then why should we citizens heed any of them? Why, for that matter, should we pay our taxes? Why should we rein in our aggressions? Why should we serve in the country’s defense? Why should we look out for anything other than our own narrowest interests?
A responsible prime minister, however aggrieved he may be and however convinced of his innocence, should have long since thought through what might happen to his beloved Israel if its citizens begin to ask themselves those sorts of questions. What then of Israel’s internal cohesion as it struggles to reconcile all of its complex domestic religious, demographic, economic and social divisions? What then of its resilience in the face of all the challenges of this treacherous region?
The road ahead
Where all this will lead — this battle between Netanyahu and the central institutions of state that he charges are lined up dishonestly against him — is anybody’s guess. Politically and legally, many roads are open.
Netanyahu may fail to secure reelection on April 9, may accept defeat with dignity, hand over power, and focus on his legal battles as a private citizen. Or he may fail to secure reelection, and seek to contest the result, claiming that he has been wronged and illegitimately forced from office. The portents are not particularly encouraging. This is the man who on election day in 2015 tried to maximize the right-wing turnout by claiming the Arabs were voting in droves, and who brokered a deal last month to legitimize a party of disciples of racist rabbi Meir Kahane, who would rather Arab citizens not have the right to vote at all.
Netanyahu may win reelection, and try to run the country and his legal defense simultaneously. He might, however implausibly, persuade Mandelblit, in the hearing, to drop the planned indictments. He may decide to step down at some point, perhaps if and when charges are actually filed. (A decade ago, he urged prime minister Olmert, “up to his neck” in corruption allegations, to step aside before a decision to indict him had been formulated, since Olmert’s decision-making on vital issues relating to the Palestinians might be swayed by “personal interests.”)
He may try to stay on longer, remaining in office while on trial — if the High Court allows him to do so. He could conceivably seek to stay on even if convicted, until the entire appeals process is exhausted. He could try to enact legislation to prevent him being prosecuted at all — by pushing a version of the so-called French law that would shelter him so long as he remains in office. He could conceivably try to utilize an existing law on immunity, by claiming that the charges he faces are being brought “not in good faith.”
The options are numerous and given the way the investigation against him has played out these past two years — and, more relevantly, how Netanyahu has sought to counter it — anything is possible.
For Netanyahu’s desperation to remain in power should not be underestimated. It is that desperation that, allegedly, led him to conspire with the newspaper publishers and news site owners. It is that desperation that, allegedly, prompted him to damage the very high-tech economy of which he is so rightly proud, in order to protect the business interests of one of those media owners with whom he was in league.
It is that desperation that is now inviting comparisons to Richard Nixon; like Nixon in 1972, Netanyahu won the elections in 2013 and 2015 and would have likely sailed serenely to reelection in 2019 were it not for his alleged illegal activities. As I wrote here three months ago of the election campaign: “But don’t discount, either, a rather Nixon-esque scenario. Paranoid and fearful that he might not win reelection, Richard Nixon resorted to illegal behavior to gain advantage over his rivals. Despite the mounting evidence against him, he won reelection — demonstrating, ironically, that he’d had no need to resort to the illegality in the first place. Sounds familiar? And then it all caught up with him.”
A few gifts from friends? A couple of favorable articles in a sea of hostile coverage? No, that’s not what the case against Netanyahu is about. It’s about a prime minister’s alleged efforts to illegally bend Israeli media to his will, the better to ensure the public is persuaded of his unique ability to run this country, while abusing “his power and authority” and “corrupting the public servants working for him.” And it is about his subsequent battering of the pillars of Israel’s democracy as the guardians of the law close in on him
And it is that desperation — born of his own conviction that his remaining as prime minister is vital to Israel’s very existence; that only he has the knowledge, wisdom and experience to face down Israel’s challenges and keep the country intact and safe — that has led him to seek to undermine Israelis’ own faith in their legitimate political opposition, their media, their police force, and their state prosecutors.
A few gifts from friends? A couple of favorable articles in a sea of hostile coverage? No, that’s not what the case against Netanyahu is about. It’s about a prime minister’s alleged efforts to illegally bend Israeli media to his will, the better to ensure the public is persuaded of his unique ability to run this country, while abusing “his power and authority” and “corrupting the public servants working for him.” And it is about his subsequent battering of the pillars of Israel’s democracy as the guardians of the law close in on him.
The courts have yet to rule on Netanyahu’s alleged criminality. The charges have not even been filed and — who knows? — may never be.
But on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a danger to Israeli democracy — the same prime minister who has done so much to keep Israel safe, and who did retain the trust of much of the Israeli electorate for the past decade — the verdict is tragically in. And it is guilty.