Israeli politics has felt like a three-ring circus since the results of the September election left the country no closer to a stable governing coalition than the April 9 polls did six months earlier.
In the center ring, the country has watched a frustrated ringmaster – President Reuven Rivlin – oversee the attempts to form a government: first, unsuccessfully by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then by Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz – so far, with little sign of success.
A second ring spotlights Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who is expected to draw the crowd’s focus at an undetermined point in time – presumably late November or early December – when he finally hands down criminal indictments against Netanyahu.
Finally, in a third ring we have a political acrobat, Yisrael Beiteinu chief Avigdor Lieberman, whose flip-flopping was responsible for creating the circus in the first place, as he continues to twist and turn, insisting on an impossible unity government and refusing to give either the right or the left the kind of support that might knock their rival off of the tightrope and lead the way to a coalition.
The Israeli public under the big top may have thought the show couldn’t get any stranger or more confusing. But over the past week, this circus has been enhanced by a new, bizarre carnival sideshow spinning off from the action on the main stage.
The first major development is a spiralling controversy involving a police probe into the actions of two of Netanyahu’s closest aides – spokesman Jonatan Urich and media adviser Ofer Golan – and their alleged connection to the harassment of Shlomo Filber, the most important state’s witness in the strongest criminal case against the prime minister.
A video that played in an endless loop across Israeli television channels and on social media ahead of the September election shows a van covered with religious slogans and adorned with silver crowns blasting through a loudspeaker, for all the neighborhood to hear, that Filber is a liar and a traitor. In the video, which was filmed in August, a muffled recording of Filber’s testimony to the police, which was leaked to the press, is followed by a woman’s voice loudly goading and scolding him:
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“Momo, be a man! Come out, tell the truth!” she yells, referring to him by his nickname. “Momo Filber, what did they do to you to make you lie against the prime minister? What did they promise you? ... Momo, the left is using you to bring down Likud!”
Filber, the former director-general of the Communications Ministry, is the key witness in the graft case against Netanyahu involving the telecom giant Bezeq, known as Case 4000. The prime minister is suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust for taking steps that benefited Bezeq shareholder Shaul Elovitch in return for favorable coverage on Bezeq’s popular Walla news site. Filber was arrested in 2018 on suspicion of promoting Bezeq’s interests from within the ministry and ultimately signed a state’s evidence agreement. In powerful testimony against the prime minister, Filber told police that his actions were based on Netanyahu’s orders and that the prime minister urged him to fire the ministry’s deputy director general.
The case depends heavily on Filber’s account, which is why Mendelblit has said publicly that the police are taking the alleged intimidation efforts by Netanyahu’s camp seriously.
The prime minister’s defenders say the police are taking it too seriously in a deliberate effort to weaken Netanyahu ahead of any indictments by targeting his staff. Accounts in the Hebrew television media described the ordeal of the first Likud staffer questioned in the investigation. She says she was dragged to police headquarters in the middle of the night, barely dressed in her pajamas, and her phone was seized and examined to help investigate who was behind the Torah truck with the loudspeaker.
The next week, Golan and Urich were brought in. They contend that their phones were searched without proper authorization from the courts and without being fully informed of their rights. In an official complaint filed late last week with the Justice Ministry, the two say that a police investigator examined information in their phones beyond the Filber harassment case and that their phones were used for a fishing expedition to bolster the cases against Netanyahu.
The week ended with a legal battle still raging over whether now, even with court approval and judicial oversight, investigators should be able to access the pair’s phones, which are still in police custody – an issue that will only be heard in court this week.
Netanyahu has described these developments as emblematic of his “persecution” with “the clear aim of neutralizing the prime minister’s ability to fight for public opinion as a flood of leaked investigation materials harms his close associates.”
Over the course of the week, the Torah van/telephone affair exploded into an all-out battle over the nature and conduct of the Israeli law enforcement establishment, led by the Justice Minister himself – Netanyahu loyalist Amir Ohana.
On Tuesday evening, Ohana took to the airwaves to slam what he called a “prosecution within the prosecution” that is “setting its schedule according to the agenda of the political system.”
This deep state-like entity, he said, was “making itself a political player – a player that is not elected by the public.”
On the same day, Mendelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan shot back that they “reject the attempt to cast aspersions on the work of anyone in the police or the prosecution without any factual foundation.”
“No one will deter us from faithfully carrying out our duties,” they declared. “No one will turn us away from the straight path.”
The second sideshow of the week was the conspiracy theory floated in front of 1,000 supporters of the prime minister at one of the “Netanyahu, you’ll never walk alone” rallies, which have now become a regular occurrence in Petah Tikva near Mendelblit’s house.
Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, fused current controversy over criminal prosecution with the anniversary commemorations of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, asserting in a speech at the rally that the prosecution and conviction of Yigal Amir for murdering Rabin was another false smear against Israel’s political right and the result of a left-wing deep state at work.
Kedar claimed that he had documentary “proof” that Amir, a law student at Bar-Ilan, wasn’t responsible for the killing, and said that the crime was carried out by a state agent on behalf of the left and that all documentation supporting this had been classified as confidential by intelligence services.
“After 25 years the time has come to investigate the Rabin murder,” Kedar said at the rally. “It’s not at all clear that Amir killed Rabin. Why is Amir in solitary confinement? Is it to keep him quiet? Rabin was killed by one of his staff, under orders from a top politician who was afraid that Rabin was planning to back away from the Oslo Accords.”
The prosecution of Amir was a political tool, he said: “The left blames the right, the left blamed Bar-Ilan University for the death of Rabin” because Amir had been a student there. “We are tired of this blood libel. We want a state investigation that is not politically biased and will examine all the documents and findings relating to the murder,” he added.
Kedar’s conspiracy theory were widely condemned across the political spectrum, including by Netanyahu himself, who called it “nonsense.”
Kedar was also censured by his university, which declared that “there is no place for such statements in Israeli society,” forbade him from representing Bar-Ilan at international conferences and is in the process of putting him in front of a disciplinary committee. The right-wing Im Tirtzu group at Bar-Ilan held a demonstration in support of Kedar and is circulating a petition protesting the disciplinary action. The students called it “hypocrisy” that there are university professors who are allowed to “incite against Israel Defense Forces soldiers and the state of Israel and publicly promoted a boycott against Israel throughout the world in the name of academic freedom of expression” while Kedar is being punished for voicing his opinion, “as far-fetched as it may be.”