Analysis

Behind the Scenes of Perhaps the Most Corrupt Bill the Israeli Parliament Has Known

The 'recommendations law' intends to muzzle the police and keep the truth from the public, and each of Netanyahu's cronies is playing a role in the spectacle

Illustration: Politicians carry Netanyahu, who is smoking a cigar, on their shoulders.
Amos Biderman

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered the room of the Likud faction in the Knesset this past Monday, he was as usual mobbed by a group of activists who wanted to get close to him, angled for a coveted selfie, grasped for the noncommittal, limp handshake. It’s always the same 10 or 15 people who serve as the artificial backdrop meant to represent the people’s admiration and love for the Leader.

The prime minister began with an update on his travel schedule: a quick visit to Kenya, a meeting in Paris next week with his pal, French President Emmanuel Macron, and also with EU foreign ministers in Brussels. Afterward, he will pay a visit to India to see his friend, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

So if police investigators want to hear his response to the latest developments – including that regarding the long-awaited testimony of Australian billionaire James Packer – they’ll have to wait and squeeze their way into Netanyahu’s schedule through a window of opportunity between departures and arrivals.

“Israel is in a situation of unprecedented blossoming,” the premier told his fellow Likudniks, “in security as well as socially, economically and diplomatically. It’s in the best condition since its establishment.” The message between the lines was: You and I, I and the state are one. If you let the investigators and jurists topple me over nonsensical leftist trivialities, you’ll be cutting off the branch you’re sitting on.

While Netanyahu was closeted with his party’s MKs and listening to the murmurings of their hearts, his emissaries were putting the finishing touches on one of the most twisted and corrupt bills ever to emerge from the legislature: the “recommendations law,” aimed at muzzling the police and keeping the truth from the public in the Netanyahu cases.

Each person has a role in the frenetic spectacle being played out before our eyes. Netanyahu is playing the leader, the symbol of security and the economy, the world statesman who is at home in the offices of prime ministers, presidents and monarchs – all of whom are his friends, by the way.

Apparently, he’s maintaining the façade; his feet never get stuck in the mire. For that, he has “people” or “workers” who are ready to wallow in the filth for him. And for themselves, too, actually. Their names are David Bitan and David Amsalem. When they’re summoned, they come, and when they’re given an assignment, they don’t ask questions.

Publicly and for the record, Netanyahu is “not interested” in having laws passed that relate to the investigations he’s facing. In practice, he is urging, pushing for the bill to pass, and every comma in its text is brought to him for approval.

At the critical moments on Monday, he dispatched his chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, to the office of MK Amsalem, to supervise personally the final details of work on its text, together with coalition whip MK Bitan. Horowitz was caught in the act. When Amsalem, the sponsor of the muzzling law, was asked by members of the Knesset’s Interior and Environment Committee, which he chairs, why he kept them waiting for two hours and what Horowitz was doing in his office – he replied with typical vulgarity: “Schnitzels and salad.” That’s the level, that’s the style, that’s the person.

Here’s how things work in late-2017 Israel: David A., a former suspect who is waging a personal campaign of revenge against the police, along with David B., the future suspect (Bitan is likely to be summoned for questioning by the police soon on suspicions dating from his period in the Rishon Letzion Municipality), are in charge of ensuring that the current suspect escapes the talons of the law enforcement system.

Afterward, in the plenum, the Likud faction voted in favor of the bill – with the exception of MK Benny Begin. Netanyahu fled the chamber before the vote. In the Knesset records he’s not recorded as one of the supporters. As we’ve said: He’s clean. There’s nothing to testify to his involvement, not a trace.

The coalition MKs were compelled to vote in favor of the legislation. In the days that followed, a series of cabinet ministers – Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, Uri Ariel, Moshe Kahlon and others – expressed their objections to the bill, in order to remove from themselves some of the contamination.

Now they are flagellating themselves. Not because of their votes – either the one that took place on Monday or the one that will follow – but because of the electoral damage that’s liable to be caused to the entire right-wing bloc by the whole episode. Incipient signs are already visible in public opinion surveys. Moderate-right voters – or soft-right, as they’re called – are seen to be defecting to the rival bloc.

If until now only Likud was slammed for the behavior of its elected representatives, it’s possible that the events of this week mark a turning point for their coalition partners, too. Yet none of them is taking action. They’re scared, and Netanyahu is counting on that. He’s an uber-expert in public opinion, he understands well what’s going on here. He knows that the moderate right is liable to abandon him. But he’s in a different place. His azimuth is not political or public or even electoral, but totally personal.

The three musketeers of Alexander Dumas’ adventure tale had a cri de coeur: “All for one, one for all.” This coalition embodies the first part of the slogan. Sixty-five MKs and ministers, most of them honest folk, untainted by scandal, have become pawns on a chessboard and are being played by a person who couldn’t care less about any of them. They are his protective shield, they are his wall of shame.

The purists on the social networks chose to assail the opposition MKs who absented themselves, as though their vote would have made a difference in the final tally. It was like flogging a dead horse. The parliamentary opposition is a joke. But what else is new?

One can imagine the tumult if, for example, Ehud Olmert’s coalition government had tried to pass a similar law. The Likud party of the time, with just 12 MKs, would have set the Knesset and the whole country ablaze.

Netanyahu and Bitan at the Knesset, November 20, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Take Kulanu’s Rachel Azaria. She decided to vote against the legislation in its first reading, despite the necessity to maintain coalition discipline. Before the vote, however, Meretz MK Ilan Gilon requested, for some reason, for the vote to be treated as one of no-confidence in the government. Azaria was forced to leave the plenum, instead of casting a nay vote that would have been recorded as a lack of support for the coalition she’s part of. So even that symbolic achievement was wrested away from her.

House on fire

On Monday, when the silencing and concealment bill was approved, first by Amsalem’s Interior Committee and then in its first Knesset reading, two MKs, one from Likud and the other from another coalition party, had a chat. “Tell me,” the second one asked his Likud colleague. “What’s the rush? Why are you in such a big hurry?”

The Likud MK, who is very close to the prime minister, explained: The assessment of Netanyahu, his confidants and his legal advisers is that, in the end, he will not be indicted. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit would not dare to do what none of his predecessors did: force the prime minister to resign by charging him, and thereby topple the government and bring about early elections.

Mendelblit, Netanyahu’s people believe, will close the cases and make do with a serious “public report” – as former Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein did when he rejected the recommendations of the police and the state prosecution in previous cases to put Netanyahu on trial.

At the same time, however, these associates are convinced that the police, in contrast to the attorney general, will conclude that an evidentiary foundation does exist for indictments in both Case 1000, involving the receipt of luxury gifts and other personal benefits, and Case 2000, involving possibly illegal conversations between Netanyahu and Yedioth Group publisher Arnon Mozes. The possibility of the premier languishing under a dark cloud for an extended period – until a final decision is made by the attorney general – a situation that could even lead to the dismantling of his government, is a disaster that must be prevented. The best way to accomplish that, the only way actually, is by means of the thuggish law that passed its first reading this week.

The view in Netanyahu’s circle is that the police will complete their work in one of the cases, or possibly both, during December. To ensure that the summation of the investigations is not made public officially, the law has to be published in the Government Gazette and be signed by the president within the next two to three weeks at the most.

That’s what’s behind the directive, which came straight from the Prime Minister’s Bureau, to Bitan and Amsalem (their denials notwithstanding) to step on the gas. That’s the reason for their feverish behavior on Monday. That explains why chief of staff Horowitz didn’t make do with phoning the sponsors of the law, but arrived in person to supervise the polishing of the text. When the house is on fire, you don’t care about appearances. Discretion was thrown to the wind.

As in previous instances, the person who has positioned himself as the gatekeeper in this government left the gate wide open at the moment of truth. If Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon hadn’t retracted his public commitment to prevent the passage of a personal, retroactive law that would affect the investigations of the prime minister, the abomination called the “recommendations law” would never have been born. Kahlon complains, in part justly, that all the country’s ills and problems are being placed at the doorstep of his party, with its 10 Knesset seats. But he’s the one who declared that he would not allow passage of legislation aimed specifically to serve a single individual, so what is he complaining about?

Kahlon’s representative on the Interior Committee is MK Roy Folkman, chairman of the Kulanu party’s Knesset faction. When the deliberations on the legislation first began, Folkman still hoped to create a joint front with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) and Justice Minister Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) that would put an end to the bill. He spoke to them both and was in continuous contact with their aides. At a certain point he realized that all hope was lost. Both Shaked and Erdan collapsed under the overwhelming pressure exerted on them by the Prime Minister’s Bureau. Each of them achieved a certain concession in the final wording of the bill, one that’s relevant to their respective ministries – and then stepped aside. Erdan abandoned the investigators and Shaked deserted the prosecutors.

“We were left on our own,” Folkman told me this week.

He described the visceral and emotional dialogue he conducted with Netanyahu’s confidants. “Your party is always sticking it to us,” Bitan and Amsalem said to him. “You humiliate us, shame us, you have made yourselves our kashrut inspectors.” In addition, they also issued the most frightening threat of all: to dismantle the coalition. At the height of the madness, the premier’s people made it clear to the finance minister’s people that Netanyahu attributes supreme and critical importance to the muzzling law – just as he did in the case three years ago of the legislation intended to put limits on the freebie paper, and Netanyahu mouthpiece, Israel Hayom: To torpedo it, he was willing to dissolve a government and go to early elections. “Israel Hayom” is code for burning down the house.

At midday Monday, Kahlon informed Folkman that an agreement had been reached with the attorney general regarding the Netanyahu investigations: If Mendelblit asks for a summation of each case, he will receive it from the police. However, in any event, the summation will not be made public officially. The public will not get to know that “there won’t be anything, because there is nothing.”

That’s an improvement over the original wording of the legislation, which forbade investigators to submit a complete and concluded investigative file to the state prosecution with a bottom line detailing the offenses for which an evidentiary foundation exists and for which it does not.

Folkman took the new version to Amsalem and Bitan. They passed it on to the Prime Minister’s Bureau – where it was viewed askance. The prime minister’s people demanded a return to the original version: no case summation, no publication. Amsalem and Bitan explained to their interlocutors that the earlier version no longer existed, there was no chance it would obtain a coalition majority. Netanyahu was forced to accept the new text.

“That’s what we managed to achieve,” Folkman told me. “It’s not what we wanted, but what finally passed is weak.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara and Israel's UN envoy Danny Danon applaud as President Donald Trump addresses the UN General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 19, 2017.
EDUARDO MUNOZ/REUTERS

I asked if it would have been impossible to get more concessions. “This was the agenda of the prime minister,” he admitted. “Everything went through him and through his bureau.”

Escape from New York

In August 2018, the first three years of Danny Danon’s term as Israel’s UN ambassador will end. Usually, ambassadors who don’t get into trouble with the boss, who don’t have to endure a change of government in the middle of their terms and ask nicely for a fourth year, receive it.

Danon has asked and pleaded. At least three times in the past three months he’s met with Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Israel and in New York. The extension of his tenure was placed on the table at his initiative, but was removed from it almost at once. Netanyahu isn’t eager to help; he’s not saying yes and he’s not saying no. Danon left the meetings frustrated and affronted. Now, any prospect that had existed has disappeared. The Danon family can start packing and planning its melancholy return home.

An investigative report broadcast this week by the Israel Television News Company (formerly Channel 2 News) revealed highly troubling behavior of a prima facie criminal nature by Danon. A phone call from the police would seem to be just a matter of time. The many testimonies and the glut of documents don’t leave room for prolonged hesitation.

If Netanyahu was looking for a more or less elegant way to evade having to grant a fourth year to the ambassador he hates, and whom he booted westward only to distance him from the Likud Party Central Committee, the launching of an investigation will constitute an excellent excuse. He’ll kill two birds with one non-signature: 1. Danon will return to Israel about a year before the next scheduled election and not as he’d planned, flying in directly from the UN, suffused with a diplomatic-statesmanlike aura and landing straight into Likud’s primaries; and 2. Netanyahu will be in the position of handing out a prestigious job for which there will certainly be many bidders, from both the diplomatic corps and the political arena.

The story that emerged from the journalistic investigation bears lethal potential for every ambitious politician. It also places a huge question mark over the continuation of Danon’s career. The testimonies, documents and recordings suggest that Danon, who entered the Knesset in 2009, prior to which he was the Likud’s representative to the World Zionist Organization, built himself a sophisticated machine for dispensing public jobs and public funds to party cronies, through the cynical use of a nonprofit (the WZO) that promotes Zionism. The aim: to ensure that the recipients of the favors would serve as his troops in the primaries.

All this has now ended. The moment those involved start to get summonses from the police, Danon will lose the ability to activate the network as he did in the past. Until he landed the UN job, his image was that of just one more functionary, a typical Likud central committee product. Over the past two years, he emerged from that pigeon-hole. His performance in New York has been reasonable, maybe more than reasonable. He forged good personal ties with the former and present U.S. ambassadors to the world body, organized events such as the one this week to mark the 70th anniversary of the UN vote on the partition of Palestine, and did not disgrace himself in any way.

So, everything seemed poised for a political comeback that would place Danon in the top five places on the Likud slate and make him a leading candidate for a more senior ministerial post than the one he left for the sake of the UN (the science and technology portfolio). Until his past caught up with him.