The indictment cometh (pending a hearing): 7 things to know for February 28
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The indictment cometh (pending a hearing): 7 things to know for February 28

As the country stands on the cusp of an announcement that Netanyahu will be charged pending a hearing, a poll shows what that could mean for the prime minister’s political future

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (left to right) at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 2014. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (left to right) at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 2014. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)

1. Game changer: A poll commissioned by The Times of Israel shows a decision by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to announce plans to charge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could significantly move voters toward the Blue and White Party.

  • The poll shows Likud dropping four seats, from 29 to 25 should Mandelblit make his announcement, widely expected to come down in the coming hours. Even more significantly, Blue and White would leap from 36 to 44 seats, giving it a 19-seat advantage over Likud.
  • The upshot? Only if he is facing criminal charges would Netanyahu’s right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc fail to muster the 61 or more seats in the 120-member Knesset needed to form a majority coalition.

2. Not waiting for the starting gun: Parties won’t have to wait long to see if Mandelblit announces charges, with them widely expected to be published by Thursday afternoon.

  • No major surprises are expected, with all three of Israel’s main news broadcasts carrying near identical reports Wednesday night on the attorney general’s decision to charge Netanyahu with bribery in one case and breach of trust in two others.
  • The info is apparently solid enough that Yedioth Ahronoth’s print edition stamps the word “charged (pending a hearing)” above Netanyahu’s face on its front page, not bothering to wait for the actual announcement.
  • Channel 12 also doesn’t wait to pull the trigger on its special project looking at all the possible scenarios following the announcement, with the URL bibiindictment.mako.co.il leaving no doubt as to what it sees in the future.

3. Gearing up: Netanyahu responded to the reports Wednesday night by saying the charges were a “house of cards” that would collapse.

  • According to Haaretz, the turn of phrase was not off the cuff. “Likud has been preparing for this day for a long time, and has numerous video clips and text messages ready to explain its position. Over the past several months, the campaign has tested the effectiveness of several slogans, including ‘house of cards,’ ‘rigged cases,’ ‘bribery without money’ and ‘political persecution.’”
  • Aside from the media campaign, Likud also filed a last minute petition for an injunction against the publication of the decision, citing many of the talking points above.
  • Like previous petitions, this one is also expected to fail.

4. Pushing the Mandelbuttons: Yedioth Ahronoth calls the publication “the moment that will decide the 2019 elections.”

  • But in the same paper, columnist Ben-Dror Yemini calls it a “sad day,” noting that Mandelblit will be criticized by both sides no matter what he decides, for going either too hard or too soft on the prime minister, and decrying the pressure that he thinks will color the final decision.
  • “Too many activists, politicians and journalists already knew ahead of time what the result was supposed to be. They preached, they protested, they raised a hue and cry. Every leak was evidence, every headline became part of the conviction. Even justice officials were dragged into it.”
  • Haaretz’s lead editorial also decries pressure on Mandelblit, but only from Netanyahu and his allies: “The attorney general’s decision to publicize his position on the Netanyahu cases before the elections, and despite the pressures exerted on him, is admirable. One must hope Netanyahu will respect Mandelblit’s opinion and avoid any further incitement campaign.”

5. Undue process: Staunchly pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom is the only major publication to not lead with the news, instead filling most of its first three pages with Netanyahu’s mostly news-less trip to Russia.

  • The one page it does devote to the case, which Netanyahu himself has called the most dramatic political decision in the country’s history, is half taken up by a column by Haim Shine, arguing that Netanyahu is still innocent until proven guilty.
  • But his main point seems to be that Mandelblit is just a puppet of the leftist press trying to bring down Netanyahu, and his decision to publish before elections will ensure there is no fair hearing.
  • “A hearing after the election won’t have any importance to the public,” he writes, dropping all pretense that Likud backers view the case as about anything other than Netanyahu’s political survival. “After he publishes, there will be huge headlines on the front pages of newspapers and news presenters will break out in song and dance. This was their hope from the beginning.”
  • The line of defense that doesn’t bother trying to disprove the facts, only the fairness of the process, is also evident in a quote from a “Netanyahu associate” carried by Channel 13, who says, “If this is what they’ve found about him, he’s the most honest man in the world.”

6. Better call Shaul: Much of the allegations around Netanyahu surround him trying to buy media favors, and Channel 13 reports that Yedioth publisher Arnon Mozes will be charged with with bribery in case 2000, even though Netanyahu is only expected to catch breach of trust on that one.

  • The channel’s Aviad Glickman notes, though, that Mozes will only face a charge of attempting to give a bribe, unlike Walla news site owner Shaul Elovitch, who is expected to be charged with actually giving a bribe in Case 4000.
  • Yedioth notes on its front page that Mozes is expected to be charged, though most of the coverage focuses on Netanyahu.
  • In Walla, there is no mention of its involvement in Case 4000, which it dubs the “Bezeq-Yes” case, after the merger Elovitch was pursuing when he allegedly promised Netanyahu favorable coverage in Walla.

7. One racist too many: The Netanyahu decision is not just massive news in Israel, it is also pretty big news abroad, muscling its way into a field crowded by two nuclear powers nearing all-out war, Donald Trump’s former lawyer testifying to Congress about the US president’s alleged illegal activities, the Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam and a massive train crash in Egypt.

  • For most Americans though, criticism of Netanyahu is still centered around his deal to bring the racist Otzma Yehudit party into the Knesset.
  • The New York Times devotes an editorial to the move, accusing him of “going too far.”
  • “Perhaps Aipac will use its gathering to let Mr. Netanyahu know that his pact with the Kahanists is unacceptable. And then it will be the Israeli people’s task to sort this out,” the paper writes.
  • The New Yorker’s Bernard Avishai looks at the political calculations that led him to engineer the Union of Right Wing Parties merger, specifically the rise of Blue and White.
  • “One would think that the prospect of a government dominated by mutually supportive former generals would constitute a crisis for any democracy, and it is increasingly clear that this election will, indeed, determine the fate of democratic norms in Israel for the foreseeable future,” he writes. “But that is because of Netanyahu’s own actions, not because of Blue and White, whose generals have, paradoxically, mobilized to preëmpt him.”
  • In Bloomberg, Zev Chafets envisions a scenario in which Otzma Yehudit’s far-right supporters take to violence to protest his indictment or ouster from power, not unlike the far-rightists who led to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which Netanyahu was accused of inciting.
  • “Netanyahu, a former officer in Sayeret Matkal, one of the Israeli Defense Forces’ elite commando units, knows the power of a small band of battle-ready shock troops. In a street fight, the bullies of Jewish Power, backed by the same fanatical rabbis who blessed the murder of Rabin, would be like a vigilante special forces unit,” he writes. “Should this nightmare scenario come to pass, Netanyahu will certainly denounce the Jewish Power violence. But deniability will be harder this time. His fingerprints are on the agreement that grants thugs a role in whatever comes next.”
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