Analysis

The Latest Target in Netanyahu's Crosshairs: The Police

If the premier is indicted in the new investigations against him, he won't go quietly.

Illustration: Netanyahu carries a pile of wrapped gifts, protected by Knesset Members David Bitan and David Amsalem, who are armed with guns.
Amos Biderman

Like an ancient engraving that is exposed bit by bit as successive layers of sand are brushed away, the general lines of strategy were gradually revealed this week. The suspected criminal and those around him are laying out the hunting nets and piling on the dry leaves for camouflage. The main targets have been marked. The first arrows have been shot. This is just the beginning of what looks to be a war the prime minister intends to wage against anyone who’s not counted among his supporters.

The open and official investigation of Benjamin Netanyahu in Affair A, drily referred to as a graft probe, began Monday at the Prime Minister’s Residence. The nature of the upcoming campaign became apparent that same day: Since the premier will probably not have any factual arguments to use in his defense – the benefactors have already admitted that they showered him with all sorts of goodies – he will likely be taking this fight to the public arena.

In the afternoon, at a closed meeting of the Likud faction, Netanyahu was heard to say that he was being persecuted “because of our policy.” That’s his first line of defense. Nothing about corruption, or chronic hedonism, or an insatiable appetite for expensive gifts from wealthy patrons. It’s not him, it’s “the policy.” What is this “policy” that is the source of Netanyahu’s suffering? Since when has he had a policy? Two states for two peoples – is that his policy? Settlement construction? Promoting Israel’s cyber industry and its economy? Building the security barrier?

In order to bring together his supporters and encourage the tribe to rally around him, Netanyahu must outline the boundaries of the sector. The first “address” is the party. Then comes the government, followed by the entire right-wing camp. Unlike his two predecessors, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, who were investigated and shifted sharply to the left, Netanyahu cannot seek refuge in the arms of the peace camp. His only option is to entrench himself with the right. Rightists, unlike leftists, don’t abandon their leaders when they (allegedly) go bad. In carrying the banner of the right, he compels Naftali Bennett and his Habayit Hayehudi to defend the prime minister from his attackers.

Netanyahu’s second line of defense – no surprise – became clear when he spoke before the cameras during the public part of the faction meeting, bewailing the “celebrations in the TV studios” and also in the opposition, which has actually shown exemplary restraint so far.

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, the main opposition power today, published a pedagogically appropriate sort of message in which he expressed the hope that the prime minister and his family would emerge from this episode unsullied. He also expressed the hope that the country would not have to again experience a situation in which a prime minister is caught up in criminal proceedings. And that was about it, more or less. Not exactly a no-holds-barred attack. Lapid is keeping the Likud voters in mind, while he tries, so far without success, to win their affection. He will walk on eggshells as much as necessary so as not to anger that constituency.

The second persecutor, or maybe it’s the first, is the media. Already last year, it was labeled as aiming to bring Netanyahu and his government down, perhaps as part of a crafty, forward-looking strategy. All the inflammatory rhetoric and incitement against journalists that we’ve seen until now from Netanyahu and Co. will pale in comparison to what we can expect in the coming months, as the noose of possible criminal charges against him tightens.

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The detested media is an easy and convenient target. A cynic like Netanyahu won’t hesitate to throw to the wolves any journalists who reveal information from the interrogation rooms, or supply scoops of their own. He is relying, correctly in his estimation, on the short memory of the public – the public that has already forgotten what the media did to Olmert and Sharon, how it revealed details in their criminal cases methodically and mercilessly, without being intimidated.

No one unscathed

The leftist opposition and the hostile media are obvious targets, easy prey for Netanyahu. As to yet another target that he has in his telescopic sights, we can only learn details, for now, from the emissaries he dispatches to the front line. As in earlier incidents, he’s been calling on the same inimitable duo, Bitan and Amsalem (aka David and Dudi) – two MKs who find no assignment, no matter how bizarre or contemptible, to be beneath them. Shame, honor, dignity, values – these are all dirty words in their personal lexicons. Like two bulldozers operated by remote control, they keep plowing through whatever norms and sanity we have left. It’s tempting to dismiss them as a novelty act, but knowing whom they serve, and whose messages they are conveying, all one can do is gulp nervously and hope this bad dream will be over soon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Emil Salman

Between Monday night and early Tuesday morning, there was a filibuster in the Knesset plenum, arranged by the opposition, to delay the vote on postponing the launch of the new public broadcasting corporation until the end of April. Very few MKs were present. MK Revital Swid (Zionist Union) ascended the podium and for 50 minutes did her part to keep the session going.

At one point, she started engaging in some verbal ping-pong with the two jokers, Amsalem and Bitan, about the investigation of the prime minister. And then the cat was let out of the bag: Amsalem, with Bitan’s backing, said that he planned to submit a bill that would ban former heads of the police investigations unit from running for the Knesset for a period of 10 years after their retirement. Why? Because, by definition, they’re all biased against the right.

“We saw [Moshe] Mizrahi in Labor, and now [Yoav] Segalovich is going to Yesh Atid,” said Amsalem, laying out his indictment. “These people have motivations. They have positions. They didn’t come up with them at age 50. It’s something they brought with them from home.”

It’s worth paying close attention to what Bitan and Amsalem are saying these days, and also in the middle of the night in a near-deserted Knesset, to grasp what the prime minister is planning. Here are his targets – the media, the opposition and the police (not necessarily in that order). He has marked them as his enemies, his persecutors. They’re all leftists, they’re all plotting to take him down. It won’t be long before we see despicable posts against Meni Itzhaki, current head of the investigations division, and against Koresh Barnur, head of the National Fraud Squad.

No one will be left unscathed. Serious aspersions will be cast on all of them. Mud and filth will be hurled at all of them. One by one, person by person, institution by institution, organization by organization – each in turn will get what’s coming to it. The longer and deeper the investigation goes, the wider the circles of slander and defamation will become. When the time comes, it will also reach the State Prosecutor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office. Netanyahu will not go quietly. If he is ultimately indicted, you can be sure that he’ll leave scorched earth behind.

A decisive year

This week someone compared Netanyahu to Moses, who led the Jewish people through the wilderness for 40 years, gazed at the Promised Land from the top of Mount Nebo, but was not privileged to enter it.

For more than 10 years, all told, over four terms in office, Netanyahu fervently dreamed of seeing a Republican president in the White House. Someone he could really relate to. And now, after two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, his fondest wish is coming true. President-elect Donald Trump, who will have the support of a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, is about to enter the Oval Office.

But as luck would have it, instead of being able to just sit back and bask in all the goodness that American voters have bestowed on him, Netanyahu finds himself entangled in criminal investigations that will tie him up in the coming year. He can’t simply enjoy the peace and quiet after the (biannual) state budget was passed, or relax in the resolution of the Amona crisis. Before long he may even end up yearning for the days when these were his problems.

From the lengthy and unusual statement made by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit after Netanyahu’s first round of questioning this week, one can infer that very thorough and comprehensive investigative work was conducted over the past seven or eight months. Dozens of witnesses were questioned, documents were seized, other actions were taken. The basis for the inquest is there; what remains is to clarify the facts with the main suspect.

Assuming that this is the true picture of what is going on, the decision on whether to try Netanyahu on one or both of the affairs under investigation will be made sometime in 2017. There are two possibilities: One, that the cases will be closed, and Netanyahu will come out politically strengthened, and able to retain his position unhindered until early 2019; maybe he’ll even be elected for a fifth term, borne on the wings of persecuted victimhood and tortured sainthood.

The other possibility is that the attorney general will decided to indict, subject to a hearing – in which case the gates of hell will open and the political system dragged into chaos. If that happens, Netanyahu will have to make a choice: to resign as prime minister or cling to his seat and proclaim that, as he likes to say, “nothing will come of it because there is nothing there,” and therefore, he sees no reason to quit. And there’s a third possible option: to call for elections.

The potential ramifications of each one of these scenarios are all very complicated. One giant headache. But it’s too early to predict what will happen. Best to hold off on the speculations.

The one thing that is clear so far, is that for the first time since Netanyahu formed his fourth government in May 2015, a question mark has been placed over the popular assumption that this coalition will endure until early 2019. Right now, the option of elections at the end of this year, or in early 2018, doesn’t look so far-fetched.

Bear in mind that it’s not just Benjamin Netanyahu who’s involved here. The police have also recommended bringing charges against Sara Netanyahu, too, in the separate affair of the Prime Minister’s Residence. And their elder son Yair may also be investigated, according to reports. Except for the younger son, Avner, and the family dog, Kaya, the whole clan seems to be in hot water. An indictment against Sara could be a game-changer, even before any decisions are made regarding the prime minister’s cases.

A supporter of Sgt. Elor Azaria, convicted of manslaughter in the deadly shooting of an incapacitated Palestinian attacker, holds a sign that reads 'Free Elor,' Tel Aviv, January 4, 2017.
Oded Balilty/AP

On their watch

The hours passed like an eternity until the prime minister, a champion tweeter and quick-responder, announced Wednesday that he supports a pardon for the convicted soldier Elor Azaria. During this time, Netanyahu agonized and debated and consulted, and maybe even commissioned a snap poll, but mainly craned his neck right and left to get a whiff of the wind, and pricked up his ears to hear the rumblings of the electorate, the comments of Naftali Bennett and the murmurings of the nation. And the nation, without question, is with Azaria. And wherever the nation is, that’s where we’ll find the prime minister – terrified and being led, rather than leading. Certainly not striving to set any moral example.

The populist calls for Azaria to be pardoned – when the reading of the verdict of manslaughter was barely completed and before the sentence has been declared – are a stinging slap in the face of the military justice system. These calls amount to spitting at the three judges even while they are doing their work. It’s no big surprise that Netanyahu added his voice to the cacophony of politicians from right and left. And we won’t fall off our chairs if we soon see the Azaria family honored with an invitation to the prime minister’s office, and embraced by the man himself.

This mess is happening on his watch. And it’s not really helping – not when the premier’s waging a fierce battle against Bennett for the votes of the ideological right. If Azaria is sent to prison, a vast group of voters will hold Netanyahu chiefly responsible for it: You released more than 1,000 convicted terrorists from prison to free Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity, they’ll declare angrily, and you won’t even let our Elor out of military prison.

This is why Netanyahu has taken a public stance in support of the convicted soldier. In a statement issued just minutes before the prime-time news programs, he said nothing about supporting the court and the verdict. He made it clear that his heart goes out “first and foremost” to the soldier and his family, thus signaling to the army’s chief of staff and its top commanders what he thinks of them and their so-called “Israel Defense Forces values.”

The really outrageous thing is the timing with which a pardon is being publicly requested. Netanyahu isn’t even waiting for the sentence to be handed down before he asks for Azaria to be pardoned. (Maybe the tribunal will elect not to give him a sentence, and there will be no need for a pardon.) No, he wants the soldier to be pardoned right now – i.e., for the conviction to be erased and for Azaria to come out of this whole thing pure as the driven snow, as if nothing ever happened.

This is crude defiance and an act of betrayal of the legal system, coming from none other than the country’s chief executive. But there’s no reason to be surprised by this either. For some time now, the prime minister has been behaving in this sort of frenzied way.

Compared to Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who in his previous incarnation as an opposition MK took up the role of Azaria’s chief supporter, sounded quite reasonable and statesmanlike. Amazing what a job can do for a person. Lieberman is stubbornly refusing to join the herd calling for the soldier’s pardon. He suggests waiting and letting the relevant institutions do their jobs. He is also expressing, as he must, unqualified support for the court that falls under his command due to his ministerial position. Similar responsible statements have been heard from Finance Minister and Kulanu chair Moshe Kahlon.

This is the difference between Lieberman and Netanyahu: The former could be hurt, politically, just as much as the latter. Indeed, Yisrael Beiteinu’s electorate is just as united in support of the soldier as Likud and Habayit Hayehudi voters are. But Lieberman has genuinely, and admirably, internalized what it means to be defense minister. He might well support a pardon for the convicted soldier in the future, but only if it’s done by the rules, when all the legal proceedings are concluded. He has the authority to do so, but the final decision will rest with President Reuven Rivlin.

Netanyahu’s statement is a signal to the hundreds of hooligans who violently protested Wednesday outside Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv – people from the racist Lehava and La Familia groups – to carry on with their actions. They beat journalists, blocked roads, cursed the judges and the army and taunted the IDF chief of staff with the cry, “Gadi, watch out! Rabin is looking for company.”

We have not heard a single word from the prime minister condemning such vile words. Or a word from him in defense of the military judges who need protection. His embrace is reserved for the criminal and his family. We haven’t heard him say anything, even if only empty words, about the “IDF’s values” and “purity of arms.”