The flaw in Netanyahu’s articulate public defense

PM claims unhinged police force has joined with his enemies in a bid to oust him, and Attorney General Mandelblit will now restore order. But it is Mandelblit who oversaw the probe

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a July 2015 cabinet meeting, when Mandelblit was serving as cabinet secretary. (Emil Salman/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a July 2015 cabinet meeting, when Mandelblit was serving as cabinet secretary. (Emil Salman/Pool)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is articulately aggrieved. The media is out to get him. The left is out to get him. Rival politicians are out to get him. Most galling of all, the police, who should be upholding the law, have lost their objectivity and are also out to get him, because, however implausibly, they have ostensibly become persuaded that he was working to undermine them and targeting the very investigators who were probing him.

Thus, in Netanyahu’s adamant telling, in one firm and feisty speech on Tuesday night and another on Wednesday morning, the cops have cobbled together recommendations that he be prosecuted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust that are confused, skewed and unfounded.

He did not receive gifts from his businessman friends, most notably Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, amounting to anything like the million shekel ($282,000) total that the police allege. He never intervened to boost Milchan’s business deals. It was rival Yair Lapid (called in by police to give evidence in the Milchan-centered Case 1000) who, as finance minister in the previous Netanyahu coalition, met with Milchan over a tax law amendment that could have saved Milchan millions. And while he did work to help Milchan regain his US visa, that was his obligation as prime minister, since Milchan was being punished by the US for carrying out activities — apparently clandestine intelligence work — that had benefited Israel.

The way Netanyahu is setting out his public defense, he has only ever acted in the interests of Israel, and he intends to keep on doing so — ensuring Israel’s security, advancing its economy, and responsibly heading its elected government through the end of this term and into the next one, so long as the wise Israeli electorate continues to place its trust in him.

How so? How is he going to evade this pernicious witch hunt when even the men and women in blue have joined forces with his familiar adversaries in the media, the left and the opposition? Because, says Netanyahu, the state’s prosecutors have not been corrupted. The clear-eyed professionals will see through the “Swiss cheese” of the police recommendations, recognize the allegations against him as a collection of falsehoods and exaggerations and, far from putting him on trial, will close the case.

This, after all, he notes, is precisely what has happened in a series of cases against him and a long line of other high-profile suspects over the years — prime ministerial predecessors included. Time after time, the police recommend charges, and the attorney general says no, sometimes derisively. (In perhaps the most dramatic such instance, the “Greek Island” investigation into prime minister Ariel Sharon progressed all the way to the point of the state attorney drawing up a draft of the indictment, before then attorney general Menachem Mazuz closed the case in 2004 with the withering determination that the evidence gathered by police “does not even come close” to the level required for a conviction.)

Netanyahu claims no fewer than 15 police investigations have been opened against him over the years, with police recommending he be prosecuted in several of them. And yet here he still is in the Prime Minister’s Office. And here he will be, he promises, for a long time to come.

The eloquent bravado is also designed to shore up another crucial component in his array of defenses — support from his party colleagues and coalition allies. Ehud Olmert, caught up in suspicions of corruption on a far, far smaller scale than those alleged against Netanyahu, was forced out of office long before he was charged because his defense minister, Ehud Barak, turned against him. Olmert, who was compelled to announce in the summer of 2008 that he would not seek reelection, was only indicted a year later, and only convicted three years after that, eventually going to jail in February 2016. Who knows how much longer he might have sought to battle it out as prime minister, if he’d had the political support to do so?

For now, in contrast to Olmert’s circumstance, Netanyahu remains the Israeli public’s most popular choice for prime minister. The coalition partners on whom his majority hinges — notably including Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon and Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett — are not happy but they’re not abandoning him. His own Likud colleague/rivals are holding their fire. And his bashing of his most potent opposition threat, Lapid, as the villain of the piece, is intended to help defang that challenge too.

In the short term, maybe even in the medium term, therefore, Netanyahu’s political prospects, though they can hardly be called sunny, are also far from unremittingly bleak. He can certainly hang on for a good while yet. Politically, and legally.

Nonetheless, there is a flaw in Netanyahu’s defensive wall. However attorneys general in the past have worked closely, or not worked closely, with police investigators, in this case, this attorney general, the Netanyahu-appointed Avichai Mandelblit, has overseen the gathering of evidence from the start with an emphatically hands-on approach. (Mazuz was not even attorney general when the Greek Island probe began.) Those police recommendations so furiously contested by the prime minister did not land on Mandelblit’s desk Tuesday like a bolt from the blue. Mandelblit and his team may now take weeks, even months, to decide on whether to press charges, but they won’t be starting from scratch. They know this case inside out.

The police investigation so castigated by Netanyahu was, to a considerable degree, a Mandelblit investigation. The picture so determinedly painted by the prime minister of a police probe unhinged by impure motives, and a sagacious attorney general now poised to restore sanity, may be compelling. It may comfort some of Netanyahu’s supporters. But it does not square with the way in which the investigation has played out.

Doubtless, Netanyahu is entirely aware of this. And doubtless, while he fires back at detractors and enemies imagined and real, he has concluded that it would not be smart, at least not at this stage, for him to impugn the motives of the official who holds the key to his fate.

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