Analysis

If Israel Were a Normal Country, Netanyahu Would Have Already Resigned

The situation when an elected official's lifestyle is paid for by wealthy people for years out of the public eye is breach of trust. But the question remains: Does the attorney general have enough guts to indict a presiding prime minister?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, January 9, 2016.
Emil Salman

The numerous investigations into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allow him and his associates to claim that he’s being "persecuted" and that the allegations will come to nothing. Nothing? Actually, there’s plenty. The two big cases currently in play, some of whose basic facts have not been denied, are enough to demand that the prime minister give a detailed accounting to the police, and even more so, to the public.

If this were a normal country, the next step would be to resign. But Netanyahu isn’t thinking in those terms. Someone with a lawyer like Jacob Weinroth doesn’t plan to go anywhere soon. Netanyahu plans a war of attrition to wear down the media, the police, the state prosecutors and the attorney general.

It’s not so hard to exhaust them all. As communications minister, Netanyahu controls the media. Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich was his appointment. The prosecution doesn’t decide anything, and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is trapped in the worst situation he could have imagined.

The last known time Mendelblit had to decide between loyalty to his superior and the rule of law was when he was military advocate general. It was when he was asked if then-Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi could get away with not giving the “Harpaz document” to the attorney general. (The document was a forged letter meant to sway who would become the next chief of staff.) After a night of hesitation and deliberation, Mendelblit did the right thing and told Ashkenazi to hand over the document.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enjoys a cigar.
Alex Levac

Given that Netanyahu isn’t going to resign of his own accord, does Mendelblit have the guts to file charges against a sitting prime minister and lead to his removal? This challenge is enormous. En route to meeting the challenge are two main investigations: the taped conversations between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, and the gifts the prime minister has received from businessmen.

Ironically, it’s less clear that the Netanyahu-Mozes conversations will lead to criminal indictments, even if it’s the more serious case from a public perspective. The facts that have already been revealed – and that no one has denied – show that the picture received by readers of Yedioth and Israel Hayom reflects the personal agenda of powerful people.

These two mainstays provide the information that fashions the worldview of more than half of Israeli newspaper readers, a worldview dictated by Mozes and Netanyahu. This is yet more proof that the foundation of a democratic country providing reliable information to the public doesn’t exist in Israel.

Bribery suspect or police agent?

The question of whether the conversations will produce an indictment depends on all the details. According to media reports, Mozes suggested giving Netanyahu favorable coverage if he moved to weaken Israel Hayom, which is owned by Netanyahu patron Sheldon Adelson.

The potential criminality in Mozes’ context is relatively clear – he used illegitimate means to try to restrain his main business competitor. This would be a violation of antitrust laws. The CEO of supermarket chain Super-Sol, Effie Rosenhaus, who was convicted of pressuring suppliers to weaken rival Mega’s ability to compete, got two months in prison.

Avner Yaron / GPO

More serious is the possibility that bribery was involved. Favorable coverage is also a benefit. By law, a bribe needn’t necessarily be money; it can be any benefit.

Mozes offered Netanyahu a benefit so the prime minister would use his influence. It doesn’t matter whether the influence Mozes sought was legislative intervention to reduce Israel Hayom’s power, or intervention with the rival paper’s decision-makers to reduce its competitiveness.

Regarding Netanyahu, not enough is known. It could be that the conversations recorded by his bureau chief at the time, Ari Harow, were a trick by the prime minister to collect evidence on Mozes. If so, Netanyahu was acting as a kind of police agent. If the case evolves into charges against Mozes, Netanyahu will be the main prosecution witness.

On the other hand, if the recorded conversations and other evidence against Netanyahu reveal that he was willing to make a deal with Mozes, everything flips. Netanyahu could be indicted on corruption charges ranging from breach of trust to accepting a bribe – the worst type of violation by a public official.

Millions of shekels

Mendelblit is also the one who ordered an investigation into the favors that Netanyahu received from billionaires like Arnon Milchan and James Packer.

Netanyahu’s lawyer, Weinroth, didn’t deny that Netanyahu had received cigars and wine from Milchan. According to the reports, the Netanyahus have been living as if they’re in the top 0.1%, dipping into champagne, expensive cigars and gourmet meals funded by billionaires like Milchan and Packer for years.

The estimate that the favors run into the hundreds of thousands of shekels is conservative. The real number is probably a few million shekels, at least.

The attorney general and the state prosecutor certainly expected from the start that Netanyahus would say that these gifts were about friendship. Indeed, speaking for Netanyahu, Weinroth explained on a brief television appearance that the gifts weren’t criminal because they were gifts between friends.

Even if this were the case, it’s an unacceptable answer. Seventeen years ago, Weinroth advised the president at the time, Ezer Weizman, to step down for health reasons. His departure allowed the closure of a case against Weizman, who was suspected of receiving financial favors from businessmen Edouard Seroussi and Rami Unger.

Weizman said he had received the money in friendship. The attorney general at the time, Elyakim Rubinstein, concluded that such an answer would no longer be accepted.

First, even gifts from friends have to be reported. Second, a situation in which a public figure’s high lifestyle is maintained over the years by tycoons without reporting it and without the public knowing is a breach-of-trust offense.

Ehud Olmert was convicted of this offense for cash envelopes he received from U.S. businessman Morris Talansky another case in which a businessman maintained the hedonistic lifestyle of a prime minister. And the scope of favors that businessmen supplied Netanyahu has certainly been greater than the money Talansky provided Olmert.

Olmert didn’t have the defense of friendship because he never was a friend of Talansky. Netanyahu is trying this line of defense. In light of the norm set by Rubinstein in the Ezer Weizman case, it’s time to reject claims like the friendship defense. This way, perhaps the day will come when the prime minister is more connected to the people and less connected to the bigwigs who provide him with cigars and champagne.