The Big Skim: 9 things for your March 6
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Israel media review

The Big Skim: 9 things for your March 6

A state's witness spills fresh dirt on the Netanyahus, but his credentials are questioned; Trump opens doors for better or worse, and an ex-aide careens from defiance to acceptance

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with US President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 5, 2018. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with US President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 5, 2018. (Haim Zach/GPO)

1. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in the US, the screws of justice are continuing to tighten in Israel, with former adviser Nir Hefetz turning state’s witness on Monday.

  • The Hefetz news, which came just a couple of hours before Netanyahu was set to go to the White House, far overshadows the prime minister’s meeting with US President Donald Trump and his upcoming speech to the pro-Israel AIPAC policy conference, dominating local news coverage Tuesday morning.
  • While Hefetz is expected to testify against Netanyahu in the Bezeq-Walla bribery scandal, damning — and gossipy — claims from the fresh state’s witness already began to leak out Monday, including that the prime minister ignored defense experts in favor of advice from his unemployed son Yair, 26.
  • “Decisions made at the Prime Minister’s Residence were insane,” the Yedioth Ahronoth daily quotes Hefetz telling associates. “The defense officials would make a decision, but then Yair would scream at him and Sara [his wife] would make a scene and he would change his mind.”
  • The paper also quotes Hefetz adding to the mythology of Sara Netanyahu as an angry, egotistical, and unhinged presence in the prime minister’s life. “We would sit in his living room and Sara would scream at me ‘how could Walla print unflattering stories and pictures like this after everything we gave them,’ and Bibi would sit there and not speak.”
  • The paper’s columnist Sima Kadmon predicts that the claim Netanyahu didn’t take security — the holy grail for some voters — seriously enough may hurt him among those who still see him as the best leader for the country. “Even the blind among his supporters won’t be able to stay impartial,” she writes.
  • Hefetz is the third person close to the prime minister to turn state’s witness, and the scene around him is increasingly looking like the scene at the end of “Casino” where the FBI moves in on the operation.

  • Haaretz reports that Hefetz will also provide testimony in cases 1000 and 2000 and will hand over recordings of the Netanyahus. The paper notes that the recordings date back to when he started to grow disillusioned with his work for them “and didn’t want to take a bullet for Bibi or his family,” according to a person involved in the investigation.

2. Netanyahu’s backers are downplaying the importance of Hefetz, with one source telling the Ynet news site, “The most senior briefing Hefetz was ever involved in was the health of Kaia,” referring to the Netanyahus’ recently deceased dog.

  • Netanyahu is quoted in Israel Hayom saying “1,000 witnesses won’t make a difference. The nonstop chase after witnesses shows that there won’t be anything, because there is nothing.”
  • In the same paper, columnist Haim Shine bemoans the fact that Hefetz will be able to avoid prosecution just because he might have some dirt on Netanyahu: “It seems everything is allowed from the police[‘s perspective] in order to force the attorney general to level serious charges.”
  • Yedioth’s Nahum Barnea also gives Hefetz the business, calling him a liar who lied to the press on behalf of the Netanyahus and may continue lying now: “The signing of more and more state witnesses, forgiving more and more criminals, shows that the attorney general is convinced that at least one case, 4000, will end in a bribery conviction. But it also shows that he is afraid. He has put all his eggs in one basket. Unfortunately, the eggs are rotten.”

3. Netanyahu may or may not face prosecution, but before he gets a chance he may very well face the public at the ballot box, as early election talk continues to gather steam.

  • Walla reports that former coalition chair David Bitan, who resigned his role as he became embroiled in his own bribery scandal, has been brought in to try and bridge the gap between the United Torah Judaism and Yisrael Beytenu parties on the ultra-Orthodox military draft issue.
  • Netanyahu told reporters the crisis is not manufactured but very real and there may not be a solution. “There’s a problem. If [UTJ head Yaakov] Litzman stands firm on his demands, it’s hard to believe a solution will be found,” he said.
  • In Haaretz, though, columnist Yossi Verter thinks the turning of Hefetz will push Netanyahu even more toward supporting early elections. “Ostensibly, if Netanyahu wants to be reelected and then face an indictment from a stronger position, with a new mandate from the public, what happened Monday should bolster his resolve,” he writes.

4. Netanyahu’s friendly meeting with Trump allowed him a much-needed respite from all his legal woes, sitting with friends instead of inquisitive police. “The prime minister is using his time in the US to project the image of a responsible, capable and stable leader, with nary a threat to his authority,” Raoul Wootliff writes in The Times of Israel.

  • Trump refused to commit to coming to Jerusalem for the US embassy opening there in May, but he also left the door open that he might (it likely would have been rude had he shut the door in Netanyahu’s face during the public photo op at the start of their meeting). “I may. I may,” he said. “We’re looking at coming, if I can, I will.”
  • Israel Hayom columnist Dror Eydar calls the very pedestrian meeting between the leaders “history,” contrasting it with the “hysteria” of the media in Israel over Netanyahu’s legal woes.
  • The Washington Post notes that Trump’s boast that he is moving the embassy to Jerusalem for a fraction of the initially quoted $1 billion cost appears to be a case of fudging numbers, since initially the embassy will just be the current consulate with a new name and some other upgrades. “The permanent structure is estimated to take roughly a decade to be built and could easily cost $1 billion,” the paper notes.

5. Trump also left the door open for there never being peace between Israel and the Palestinians. “ If [Palestinians] don’t [come to the negotiating table], you don’t have peace, and that’s a possibility also,” he said.

  • “For the first time since US President Donald Trump’s ‘ultimate peace deal’ burst into our lives, even the dealmaker from Washington sounded very skeptical about its chances,” Noa Landau writes in Haaretz.
  • In a briefing to reporters after the meeting with Trump, Netanyahu said the Palestinian issue was only a small slice of the discussion, which mostly revolved around Iran.

6. Netanyahu also told reporters that Air India had reached a deal with Saudi authorities to allow direct flights between India and Israel over Saudi airspace.

  • However, an Air India spokesman denies to The Times of Israel that any such approval has been granted. “We are hopeful to get approval soon,” the spokesman says.

7. Speaking at the AIPAC policy conference, Vice President Mike Pence also focuses on Iran, saying the US will pull out of the nuke deal immediately if it’s not fixed and will back Israel in confronting the Islamic Republic.

  • Much of Pence’s speech was almost a word-for-word repeat of his Knesset speech in January, though he left out the word “resurrect” when speaking about Holocaust survivors building Israel — after catching heat for it while visiting Israel.
  • He also accidentally called Trump the most “pro-life president ever” before correcting himself and calling him the most “pro-Israel president ever.” The Freudian slip briefly set Twitter alight with snark.

8. Twitter has been mostly concerned with the strange trip taken by former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg, who careened from defiantly vowing to ignore a subpoena from the Mueller probe, to telling The Associated Press he’ll probably go in a number of hours.

  • During Nunberg’s frenzy of media appearances, he was accused by a CNN anchor of having alcohol on his breath. He denied it and said it was his meds.
  • Nunberg has a history of being wrong about things, like in 2017, when he told The Times of Israel Trump would not move the embassy to Jerusalem. Though there is still time.

9. Nunberg also defended Trump’s positions on the alt-right in that interview. On Monday, the gang of white supremacists popped back into the mainstream news as a speech by Richard Spencer was accompanied by clashes between protesters and neo-Nazis.

White nationalist Matthew Heimbach fights with demonstrators at Michigan State University as he and other alt-right advocates try to attend a speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer on March 5, 2018 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP)
  • Newsweek reports that infighting is spreading within the white supremacy movement, with a key Spencer ally defecting, and the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer refusing to cover the speech, instead calling Traditionalist Worker’s Party head Matt Hambauch, seen here scuffling outside the Spencer speech, a “good-natured but socially awkward fat kid.”
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