Analysis

Historic Trips and Grandiose Speeches Won't Make Netanyahu's Scandals Disappear

While Netanyahu prepares to meet with Trump and address the UN, fraud investigators are gearing toward their own sit-down with the prime minister

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara arrive at a ceremony for former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, July 1, 2017.
Jean-Francois Badias/AP

Next week Benjamin Netanyahu will embark on a trip of about 10 days, scheduled to include visits to three countries in South America, and to end with the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. He will also probably meet with U.S. President Donald Trump. The prime minister will return to Israel on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, and will meet in his home, most likely a few days before Yom Kippur, with investigators from the Lahav 433 fraud investigation unit, who want to hear his response to Arnon Milchan’s latest testimony.

He will be accompanied, as always, by his wife, who is slated to be charged with aggravated fraud (subject to a pre-indictment hearing) over financial improprieties at the prime minister’s residences. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit didn’t wait for the couple to return from their long journey, or until after the upcoming holidays. He struck Thursday night.

It will take another few months before the process is completed – time for the defense attorney to study the material, for the pre-indictment hearing, and for the attorney general to reach a final decision after it. Until then, no one should envy the prime minister. His days will be miserable, and so will his nights.

All the fairy tales with which Netanyahu fired up members of his Likud party – about how they’re hassling his wife over “TV dinners” and “the cup of tea Sara served her honorable father” and “procedures for changing a light bulb” – will be shown in their true proportions when the wording of the indictment becomes public. The prime minister’s wife will come off as someone who didn’t draw the line at any contemptible trick for padding expense accounts and shifting the millionaire couple’s personal expenses to the public purse. She treated the public treasury as if it were her own.

Correction: From her own purse, she’s incapable of spending even one lousy penny. But when it comes to the public purse (or that of various “friends” and benefactors, as detailed in the police case known as Case 1000 and many media reports), no one is more generous, extravagant and spendthrift than she. 

The residences case, as it is known, spared her husband. It turns out he didn’t know, didn’t hear and didn’t see; he didn’t witness her actions. There are those who doubt this, but indictments are based on evidence and testimony. When it exists, it exists, and when it doesn’t, it doesn’t. In any case, the prime minister has more than enough troubles of his own.

Illustration: Ehud Barak, Modi Sandberg, Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, Arnon Milchan, Limor Livnat, Yuval Steinitz and Arye Dery.
Amos Biderman

The gag order on information provided by Netanyahu’s ex-chief of staff-turned-state’s evidence, Ari Harow, whose testimony has tightened the noose around the neck of his former boss in Cases 1000 and 2000, is due to expire on September 17 – about the time the premier is expected to meet Trump and give his annual UN speech. You don’t have to be a prophet to predict the hue and cry that will emerge from his entourage: “After a historic trip and before a dramatic meeting that is vital to Israel’s security, and a formative speech by the prime minister – the media is enthusiastically focusing on fake news, because of course everyone knows that there will be nothing because there is nothing.”

A thousand speeches and a thousand trips, though, won’t extinguish the drama that Harow’s version of events is expected to create, or keep it out of the headlines (assuming the gag order isn’t extended). Meanwhile, recent developments show that police investigators and the State Prosecutor’s Office are leaving no other stone unturned in the cases involving Netanyahu.

The main suspect’s legal situation, which wasn’t so great to begin with, has been adversely affected by the interrogation under caution (that is, as someone who might be charged with a crime) of Milchan, a Channel 10 shareholder, which has yielded evidence connected to suspicions that Netanyahu accepted bribes from him. Testimony taken from the channel’s controlling shareholder, Leonard Blavatnik, has also complicated things.

Maybe organizers of the Saturday night demonstrations in Petah Tikva, outside Avichai Mandelblit’s home, should consider closing up shop. The conduct of the investigators, supported and accompanied by the attorney general and his staff, does not indicate any attempt to whitewash Netanyahu. On the contrary. The loose ends are being tied up.

Collateral damage

The submarine case, which even today looks like the biggest case of governmental, defense and economic corruption in the country’s history (and we’re still at the height of an investigation that has a thousand branches), has already spread far beyond the level of businessman Michael Ganor, attorney David Shimron and various former naval officers. It now threatens to hasten the end of one minister’s political career, and it has raised the ghosts of public figures whose existence we had forgotten.

The political future of Likud Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz looks gloomy. The finance minister from 2009 to 2013 has lost his seniority in the party and his close relationship with Netanyahu, and now almost all his close associates are under investigation. Nobody is accusing him of involvement or disputing his personal integrity, but when your confidants are up to their necks in alleged transfers of money and giving and taking bribes – among them his political adviser Rami Taib – the minister can at best be accused of considerable stupidity – or extreme naivete.

In the next Likud primary, which will likely be held in the middle of next year, members of the gang that helped Steinitz reach realistic places on the party’s past Knesset slates will all be busy with a fight for their own individual survival and won’t have time to worry about the boss.

Even without this latest trouble that has befallen him, Steinitz would have had difficulty getting reelected in today’s Likud. That’s why he’s looking for an exit – a nice, comfortable public position, such as chairman of the Jewish agency, a job that’s slated to become available in less than a year. It’s not clear at this stage whether the current imbroglio will help or hurt his pursuit of such a post.

Another person who has been mentioned as a candidate for that prestigious job definitely won’t get it. The name of ex-minister Eliezer (Modi) Sandberg, chairman of Keren Hayesod, has been added to the list of Netanyahu associates who have personally experienced the chill of sitting on the defendants’ bench in court. For about a decade, people in Likud have wondered about the close relationship between Sandberg and the Netanyahus, who unfortunately have not been blessed with many friends.

Eliezer (Modi) Sandberg, chairman of Keren Hayesod, in court.
David Bachar

There is almost no senior position that opens up for which Netanyahu doesn’t propose the name of the baby-faced Sandberg. He has been at the helm at Keren Hayesod for two terms, over a period of seven years, as a personal appointment of the prime minister. It is rare for the latter to show such a commitment to anyone. Many senior members of the ruling party envy Sandberg, or to be more precise, envied him until they saw him in court this week.

When you read Netanyahu’s Facebook page and other sources documenting Sara Netanyahu’s charitable activities, you see that the mystery is actually not so mysterious: As part of his job, Sandberg occasionally transfers large sums on behalf of his organization to causes being promoted by the prime minister’s wife. Assistance to lone soldiers, for example. In April 2016 a picture was published of Sandberg and Sara with female soldiers, showing him giving her a check for 565,000 shekels (roughly $160,000) for “A warm home for every soldier,” which provides help to soldiers from economically deprived families, among other things. In the past seven years there have been other donations, entirely legal, of equally large sums.

Sandberg is the one who decides where the money collected by Keren Hayesod goes. Incidentally, there are other causes that are no less important and exalted, involving people who are undeniably entitled to assistance, to which Sandberg has refused to give money, sometimes repeatedly. Sara Netanyahu’s requests have always been met.

Going south

The neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv whose residents suffer from the presence of African asylum seekers, have never had it so good. Twice within three days they were honored with a visit by the prime minister: the first was covered by the media and publicized, with great pomp, after the streets were cleansed of any trace of the irritating refugees. The second was secret, in a vehicle with dark windows without any identifying marks. They say that Netanyahu even wore a baseball cap as a disguise.

The first visit took place last Thursday afternoon, organized hastily in defiant response to the High Court of Justice ruling that tied the hands of the government regarding the length of time asylum seekers can be incarcerated. Netanyhau will not easily relinquish the chance to score points with his electoral base. In this case, he hitched a ride on the dedication ceremony of a new police station, joining Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan.

Prime Minister Netanyahu touring south Tel Aviv and meeting with residents on Thursday, August 31.
Moti Milrod

During the second visit, on Sunday evening, the premier was joined by the person whose absence from the first visit aroused surprise: Arye Dery, whose Interior Ministry has responsibility for the whole issue. Clearly there was something fishy here: Another visit within 72 hours? Does the prime minister have too much time on his hands?

Here’s what happened behind the scenes: About two weeks ago, the Prime Minister’s Office suggested that Dery and Netanyahu visit south Tel Aviv. Dery agreed. And then the court ruling was issued and Netanyahu wanted to strike while the iron was hot. He invited himself to Erdan’s event and asked Dery to join. However, Dery’s office discovered that the planned visit was actually a celebratory event – a far cry from a work trip. Netanyahu invited Minister Miri (“The Sudanese are a cancer in the body of the nation”) Regev, Likudnik MKs David Amsalem and Amir Ohana, who are among his more vocal yes-men, Arnon Giladi, the head of the Tel Aviv Likud branch, and others.

Dery wasn’t interested in being part of a circus-like entourage and told the PMO he was unable to attend. The official reason: his schedule. Netanyahu realized that he had to placate the relevant minister and that’s how the secret trip came about.

It was impossible to ignore the love and admiration that surrounded Netanyahu during the first visit. Although during his nine years as prime minister the refugee problem has only intensified, the man was received as a savior; elderly women of meager means clung to and embraced him. One even kissed his hand – an emotional gesture that until now we were accustomed to seeing with larger-than-life rabbinical figures, like the late Ovadia Yosef. Apparently Netanyahu has reached legendary dimensions while he is still with us, alive and kicking – prior to his downfall.

To his admirers, he has become a kind of martyr. His statements about persecution, the witch hunt against him, the attempt to bring him down, to bring them down, while he holds them close, capture people’s hearts.

Moreover, there is no city, community or local council that he visits without going to the home of the Likud branch chair, an opportunity to rub shoulders with the leading local politicos. Even in Betar Illit, the ultra-Orthodox settlement where he found himself about two weeks ago at some dedication ceremony, he sought out the chairman of the Likud branch.

Among his ministers and veteran MKs, Netanyahu’s insistence on meeting with members of the party has caused a smile. For years, for as long as they remember him, he has mocked them for their unending pursuit of registered voters, and for making trips to participate in party activists’ family events.

Now, as the siege is getting more serious, this is important to him, too. The more entangled his legal situation, the more he seeks out the bar mitzvahs and shiva calls. He knows that without the support of the political base, his hard core, he’s as good as dead. He will be abandoned by the MKs and his ministers and coalition partners. There’s a kind of house of cards here. The moment that one is pulled out, everything will collapse. That’s why he is diligently nurturing all the Likud branches.

A brief discussion with several of those who participated at two such recent meetings, one in Tel Aviv and the other in Ma’alot-Tarshiha, yielded the following observations. “Netanyahu,” said one person, “seems calm. He is making an effort to convey a tone of business as usual.” Said another: “Bibi looks upset, vulnerable, needy. I didn’t leave with the feeling that he’ll overcome this.” And a third person said: “Something in his eyes has gone out. He’s tired.”

What’s new, and is repeated at every encounter, both public and private, is Netanyahu’s declarations of love to his audiences. “I love you, we love you!” he cried to the thousands at the Likud rally in Tel Aviv and at the holiday reception at Airport City. In private homes too, in living rooms of party branch heads, he emotionally confesses his love for the activists – a love that, it must be said, he has until recently hid successfully, avoiding such encounters like the plague. Now it’s all erupting, like boiling lava from the volcano’s mouth.

Ehud Barak speaks during the 19. Swiss Economic Forum SEF, in Interlaken, Switzerland, June 2, 2017.
Anthony Anex/AP

Obsessions and avoidance

Netanyahu’s obsession with Ehud Barak, as reflected in his speeches (“The old man with the new beard,” he called him at a recent Likud rally) and in a recent post (“Where is the diplomatic tsunami?”), raises many questions. Why is the prime minister going there – why is he talking about the fact that Barak drives him crazy?

Netanyahu is an obsessive consumer of opinion polls. He knows that Barak is totally irrelevant to the political game, and continues to be unpopular. The “revival” the former prime minister and defense minister is enjoying comes thanks to a very limited playing field of media elites – and yet Netanyahu still sees fit to mention him again and again, which has forced Barak to respond with a post or two of his own, and so on, to the enjoyment of the surfers.

And whom does Netanyahu ignore, both in public appearances and on Facebook? The heads of the two main opposition parties: Avi Gabbay of the Labor Party-Zionist Union, and Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid. For him, they don’t exist. Gabbay, on the one hand, is a tough critic – yechh. Lapid, on the other, criticizes the premier rarely and gently, in order not to anger Likud voters whom, in his fertile imagination he sees streaming to his party – ditto.

According to the prevailing view, in Netanyahu’s eyes, Barak will always be the admired commander of the Sayeret Matkal elite commando unit, who defeated him in 1999 and whom he still fears. But we’re not dealing with Netanyahu’s past complexes, rather his two-pronged strategy: 1: to ignore and thus diminish the two party leaders who are challenging him, and who both aspire to replace him in the coming election; and 2: to keep mentioning the person who is not really a threat to him and isn’t even in the arena, so as to create public opinion that will demand that he be called back to head Zionist Union in the next election.

Against Barak, who is still at the bottom in the polls, Netanyahu would feel more confident, stronger and less vulnerable than opposite Gabbay, according to the prime minister’s associates. Therefore, the premier is granting Barak a significance that is disproportionate to his real political status. He wants to build him up, to breathe life into him.

Scolding session

Following is a story in installments: About a month ago, we reported here, in a humorous vein, about an incident that took place during the festive dedication ceremony for the new Sheldon and Miriam Adelson Medical School at Ariel University in Samaria. There, Sara Netanyahu met the head of the Habayit Hayehudi Knesset faction, Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, and scolded her with these words: “Shuli, I won’t allow you to attack the prime minister all the time!”

Now it turns out that the MK from the right-wing party wasn’t the only one who was reprimanded by The Lady at the ceremony. Sara Netanyahu was in a scolding mood. She flew around like a bee among the seats in the audience and scattered her remarks like darts of poisonous nectar.

After Moalem-Refaeli, she met the former MK and minister Limor Livnat, who is now a commentator on a Channel 2 program and the voluntary chairwoman of the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims. They were never friends, due to the scolder’s not-always-rational reasons. This detail, like the fact that Livnat is a former politician and a media person of some repute, didn’t prevent The Lady from complaining: “Limor, you don’t defend the prime minister enough!”

Livnat, recalls someone who was standing nearby, gave her a look that said, approximately, “I really don’t work for you or for him,” and didn’t reply. Sara, says the onlooker, fell silent for a few seconds, shocked at being ignored, and then hissed in disappointment, “Okay, I understand that you’re independent now,” and angrily turned to continue with her own affairs. Maybe she met another victim, maybe not. In Sara’s dictionary, there are more than enough reprimands to go around. Livnat refused to be dragged into it.

What is strange here is the atmosphere: MK Moalem-Refaeli is a member of a right-wing faction that is waging a daily battle with Likud over an identical inventory of voters. She is supposed to criticize or “attack” the above-mentioned party leader. Livnat is not a friend and never has been. She can’t be expected to report to the studio and lay on the fence for Netanyahu. That’s why coalition chair David Bitan and Amsalem, MK Nava Boker and Regev and all the others were invented. But in Sara Netanyahu’s world, there are no differences and no nuances, there are no differing ideologies or opposing views. There’s a “prime minister” and everyone has to sing his praises, and if not, the same fate awaits them.