The other deal of the century: 8 things to know for June 17
Israel media review

The other deal of the century: 8 things to know for June 17

Sara Netanyahu’s plea bargain is criticized for letting her off easy, and the family’s later attacks on the judiciary are seen as tacky as naming a town ‘Trump Heights’

Sara Netanyahu, wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on June 16, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Sara Netanyahu, wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on June 16, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

1. Cheap admission price: After several long years of legal wrangling, denials and more, Sara Netanyahu admitted Sunday she had misused public funds as part of a plea deal that saw her avoid almost all punishment beyond a relatively paltry financial penalty.

  • The agreement saw Netanyahu escape a conviction of aggravated fraud but confess to a lesser charge of trickery. She will pay NIS 55,000 ($15,210) — NIS 10,000 as a fine, and the rest as restitution.
  • The Calcalist website writes that Netanyahu got an “exaggerated discount,” on what she had to pay.
  • The Yedioth newspaper reports that the case may not be over yet, with the prosecution mulling a civil lawsuit for Netanyahu to return the rest of the funds the state originally alleged she misused, before it watered down the figures in the plea bargain.

2. Sweetheart deal: Considering that the original charges were much more serious, the deal is seen by some as unbelievably good, the sort of thing that, say, only the wife of a prime minister might get from an attorney general who believes he has bigger fish to fry, or from star-struck judges.

  • Haaretz’s Revital Hoval writes that the public’s unhappiness about the plea bargain stems partially from the prosecution essentially choosing to ignore a larger pattern of cheating the state.
  • And even worse, she alleges, were the judges, especially Magistrate’s Court President Avital Chen, who seemed to treat Netanyahu with reverence rather than as a convict when asking if she admitted to what was in the plea.
  • “Those present in the courtroom could hear neither the questions nor the responses because they were asked and answered in a whisper. That is how the most critical moment – in which Netanyahu had been asked to admit in her own voice that she had committed a criminal offense – went by in a hush. Judge Chen preferred not to confront Netanyahu with the facts and quickly moved on,” she writes.
  • Walla’s Amir Oren calls the plea bargain a preview, writ small, of what will happen, and indeed has been happening, with Benjamin Netanyahu. “First years of procrastinating, immunity from arrest, bugs, and then a sudden summons to be questioned on a tangle on threads from police and prosecutors. Later, downplaying the case, in fear of the attorney general. Finally, a sad-sack plea bargain which will allow him to show how weak the case is and citing the age of the defendant and lack of a criminal past.”
  • In Maariv, Avishai Grinzaig writes that the prosecution “made a terrible mistake” by agreeing to a deal with her, especially after the Netanyahu family’s attacks on the judicial system kicked right back up into high gear that very day.

3. What admission? In a video filmed from the Golan Heights, Netanyahu the Benjamin continued to claim the case was a sham and hinted that his wife’s decision to admit to the crimes was not sincere, but only a way to end the legal nightmare (which, I don’t know, would maybe make her a perjury candidate?)

  • “Sara went through four years of hell from all these accusations,” the premier said, the sun-bleached golden grains of the Golan Heights behind him. “When she decided to not go to trial, she said she had suffered enough and that she wanted that hell to end.”
  • Haaretz’s Yossi Verter writes that the decision to record the video from where he was inaugurating the so-called Trump Heights development only made that “obsequious gesture to the high commissioner in Washington” even more “grotesque.”

4. Princess Sara: Netanyahu isn’t the only one defending his wife. Like a good Likud apparatchik, Miki Zohar jumps in and compares Sara to Princess Di, chased to death by the media hounds.

  • “I don’t want something to happen to her, but what [journalists] are doing to the Netanyahu family crosses all lines,” he’s quoted saying on the Knesset Channel (Israel’s C-Span). “History will judge them. History never forgets,” adds the man who once yelled at a bereaved mother in public for attempting to push for the retrieval of her soldier son’s remains from Gaza.
  • One wonders if Zohar feels the same way about Likud-backing Israel Hayom, which buries its story on the Sara Netanyahu conviction on Page 13 and affords it all of four paragraphs.
  • To Israel Hayom’s credit, it does include an unnamed judicial source slamming the Netanyahu family for trying to play itself as the victim.
  • “Sara Netanyahu is not [Alfred] Dreyfus,” the widely quoted judicial source said. “She admitted to a criminal act because even she knows well that this was not a case of ‘there will be nothing because there was nothing’” — her husband’s mantra regarding the probes against him.

5. Where’s the there, there? In Yedioth, Nahum Barnea — who is normally a fairly strident critic of PM Netanyahu — seems to cotton to the defense’s claim that the attorney general’s case against the premier is weak and also gets in some media criticism.

  • As proof he points to the fact that there were no feared leaks, or at least reports on them, once the evidentiary material was released ahead of the pre-trial hearing. Not that any journalist would ever admit it.
  • “Nobody thinks the main TV broadcast will have a headline “nothing new in the Netanyahu case.’ If there’s no bombshell, they make one out of what they have, and if they don’t have that, there’s always analysis.”
  • Barnea also posits that Netanyahu’s crimes, which he says happened, were perhaps more mistakes by someone who just wanted better media coverage and not the workings of a criminal mastermind, which is an awful lot of benefit of the doubt for someone who has again and again engineered his way into the prime minister’s office and turned swords of Damocles into deadly weapons against his political enemies.

6. Potemkin Heights: Netanyahu spent the day far away from all that hubbub in the relatively pacific Golan Heights, inaugurating the new town of Ramat Trump, which means Trump Heights, named for Israeli industrialist and philanthropist Jules Trump.

  • The town’s real honoree is US President Donald J Trump, who tweeted out his thanks, and managed to not call anyone a sea creature.
  • But the town is less the site of Israel’s newest golf course than a Potemkin village, with Trump playing the role of Empress Catherine II and Netanyahu her fawning lover.
  • The problem is that there is no city, beyond a nice-looking sign. There is no government that can create a new municipality, and thus no plans or budget for anything there beyond the few existing ramshackle houses filled with aging Russian immigrants.
  • ToI’s Raphael Ahren notes that the cabinet decision signed in a celebratory meeting in the Golan Sunday only “calls for an ‘initiative to establish’ a new Golan Heights community, but does not actually declare the establishment of one.”
  • “Let’s hope President Trump does not know that his name is being used for this public relations exercise,”says Blue and White MK Tzvi Hauser, a former cabinet secretary for Netanyahu who has since become a political rival. “The prime minister must decide whether he really wants to establish a new settlement and deepen our roots in the Golan Heights or whether he is content with creating a virtual reality for the purposes of a photo op.”

7. No man in Manama: There are continuing fears that the upcoming US peace workshop in Bahrain will be little more than a Potemkin meeting.

  • Reuters reports that Israel is now being asked to send not an official delegation but rather some private business leaders.
  • The Israeli delegation will consist of private citizens involved in business, high-tech and innovation, said the report, which cited two unnamed sources “briefed on the event.”
  • If true, the move would put a damper on those who claimed that if nothing else, the much maligned meeting would manage to put Arab states and Israel in the same room talking about peace, a major achievement.
  • A spokesman for Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who was widely believed to be Israel’s representative at the meeting, says he is unfamiliar with the report, but confirmed the minister had yet to receive an invitation.
  • The Foreign Ministry declines to comment on the report.

8. Pete and Pete: At least the US Embassy in Jerusalem may be real, or at least not moved immediately back to Tel Aviv.

  • Despite being a critic of the Netanyahu government and many Israeli policies, Democratic presidential contender Pete Buttigieg (or Mayor Pete) tells Axios he would not move the embassy back from Jerusalem.
  • (Technically, the embassy currently exists in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem since the US did not downgrade the Tel Aviv mission to a consulate, but rather just made it a branch of the embassy.)
  • “We need a big-picture strategy on the Middle East. I don’t know that we’d gain much by moving it to Tel Aviv,” he says.
  • Buttigieg says his main beef is the fact that Trump gave concessions to Israel for free, instead of holding them as bargaining chips in peace talks. That’s true for the Golan Heights too.
  • “The Israeli claims in the Golan are not something to be ignored,” he says. “They have a lot to do with legitimate security interests. But when we did that, we were doing something that could have been part of a negotiated package, and instead we just gave it away. Worse, we gave it away probably for the specific purpose of having an impact in Israeli domestic politics, which should be the last reason that we would be conducting US foreign policy.”
read more: