1. For the first time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been directly implicated in the Bezeq bribery case, with state prosecutor Yehudit Tirosh of the Israel Securities Authority saying Tuesday that in his role as communications minister, Netanyahu was at the center of “a very grave instance of giving and taking bribes.”
- The affair makes broadsheet Haaretz’s top story and the paper notes that Tirosh said that the favorable coverage afforded Netanyahu by the Walla news site as part of the scandal was not just a friendly headline here and there: “Favorable coverage is a gentle term. I have no way to correctly term the gift.”
- Yedioth Ahronoth has a picture of Netanyahu writing on a whiteboard in front of a bunch of senior officials, many in military uniform, with the paper saying that he is “continuing to broadcast business as usual despite the investigation.”
- The tabloid notes that Bezeq head Shaul Elovitz and former Netanyahu adviser Nir Hefetz are still being kept in prison, and likely will be at least until Netanyahu is questioned in a session tentatively scheduled for Friday.
2. An ombudsman has decided that a former judge in the case, Ronit Poznansky-Katz, will face a disciplinary hearing but not criminal charges for appearing to have coordinated remand times with an ISA prosecutor. The decision earns derision among Netanyahu backers.
- Israel Hayom has a survey showing 59 percent of Israelis think the affair has damaged the credibility of the justice system. However, the survey also finds only 26% think the cases against Netanyahu should now be thrown out, and 45% believe the scandal won’t affect the legal proceedings at all.
- Columnist Yuval Elbashan in the same paper says the decision to let the judge off relatively easy has his blood boiling. “Despite the aggressive rhetoric and her very difficult standing, the ombudsman was satisfied that the case ‘did not rise to the level of criminal suspicion,’ and recommended to make due with a disciplinary hearing and ethical hearing,” he writes. “How did he so quickly, and without accepted investigatory methods, arrive at such a definite conclusion? It’s unclear.”
- Yedioth plays up the harsh text of the ombudsman’s report, and columnist Shlomo Pyutrekovsky says Poznansky-Katz should have been canned: “How is it possible that after such severe words he only recommends a disciplinary hearing?” he asks. “It doesn’t smell right.”
- The Times of Israel’s David Horovitz goes through all the other things that don’t smell right, as the Netanyahu scandals and ancillary effects wreak havoc on Israel’s democracy: “The nature of the suspicions against the prime minister and his alleged efforts to cement himself in power, the intervention in and (partly self-)compromising of our media, the sullying of our legislature, the efforts to weaken our already overstretched and troubled police force, and the discrediting of our judiciary, including by its own hand — these all suggest that the weakening process is well underway.”
- Haaretz’s lead editorial sees Netanyahu and his backers’ attempts to keep pushing against the judge as part of his goal to “To sow doubt among the public and divert the discussion from his corruption to that of the judicial system.”
3. It’s not only Netanyahu who’s in trouble and trying to pretend everything is okay. The White House is insisting that Jared Kushner losing his top-level security clearance won’t affect his ability to do his job, a big part of which is coming up with an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
- CNN reports that the downgrade comes amid heightened tensions between Kushner and White House chief of staff John Kelly, and adds that Kushner may be out of the doghouse soon, with the FBI expected to wrap up its background check of Kushner and let the White House make the call within a month.
- Further complicating matters, though, The Washington Post reports that Israel and other countries sought to exploit the young adviser’s lack of experience and his business entanglements to gain leverage.
- The reports have set off “rampant speculation among Trump allies that Kushner’s days in the White House might be numbered,” according to the Associated Press, which also notes the departure of Kushner aide Josh Raffel.
4. Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev sees potent parallels between Trump’s and Netanyahu’s lackeys trying to smear opponents and downplay misdeeds among their own: “In both cases, political parties that take pride in their glorious past are succumbing to egocentric leaders who would burn the house down to evade indictments and remain on their thrones.”
5. After three days of being closed, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre reopened early Wednesday morning, after Jerusalem caved on levying taxes on Christian properties.
- A group of pilgrims were there at 4 a.m. to get into the site just as it opened, AFP reports. “We prayed in front of the doors every day since Sunday,” Francois-Roch Ferlet, a 29-year-old visiting with a group of 50 people from France, tells the news agency.
6. Fox News reports that Israel-based geospatial analysis firm ImageSat has spotted what it says is a new Iranian military base near Damascus.
The report says the base could be housing missiles, pointing to two white buildings it says are identical to a missile silo at another site the group said was an Iranian base near Damascus last year.
The problem is, in its original report on the first base last year, ImageSat identified the building as a mosque or dining hall.
In November, ImageSat said a building at an Iranian base in Syria was a mosque or dining room. Now, claiming to have found another base with identical buildings, it identifies them as missile hangars. Hmmmm. pic.twitter.com/PvJU9CeSjX
— Joshua Davidovich (@JMDavido) February 28, 2018
Further casting doubt over the claim, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman tells the Kan news broadcaster Wednesday morning that “not every report needs to be seen as an absolute thing.”
7. That does not mean everything is hunky dory with Iran. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, returning from a visit to Israel, calls it “the most unnerving trip I’ve had in a while,” and predicts the next war will be between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
“The tempo in terms of potential for conflict in Syria has gone up; the technologies Iran is projecting into Syria and southern Lebanon has gone up; Iran’s willingness to be provocative, to push the edges of the envelope, to challenge Israel, has gone up,” says Delaware Senator Chris Coons, another participant on the trip.
8. Tweet of the day goes to the AP’s Matt Lee, who notes that Trump seems to be robocalling Arab leaders.
— Matt Lee (@APDiploWriter) February 28, 2018
9. Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, are set to return to school Wednesday, two weeks after a shooting rampage there left 17 dead.
- Miami’s NBC affiliate reports that Israeli trauma experts, well acquainted with their own tragedies, are helping students cope and recover. “In Israel in general, with all the turmoil, the terrorist attacks, and the evacuation of the Gaza settlements, there are so many things that have been going on that we’ve had a lot of practical experience,” the Israel Trauma Coalition’s Alan Cohen tells the station.
10. Students in Israel, meanwhile, will have the rest of the week off school for Purim. Wednesday night marks the holiday’s start for much of Israel — those in walled cities like Jerusalem celebrate a day later — and papers are full of pictures of kids in costume for the bacchanalian festival. Among the popular get-ups this year: Wonder Woman, Israeli pop-stars Static and Ben-El Tavori, and of course princesses. Millions and millions of princesses.