Analysis

Netanyahu Has a New Scapegoat for His Corruption Scandal

The Israeli prime minister, who's still standing after the police recommended charging him with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, has a new target in his sights

Illustration: Netanyahu sics Likud politicians on Yair Lapid.
Amos Biderman

Only Benjamin Netanyahu could have navigated the past three days and landed on his feet, unscathed in any significant way politically and without throwing the coalition into turmoil. He chalked up an impressive success in shaping the media discourse following the calamity of the police’s recommendations after their investigations of him. His party is united in supporting him and many of his friends took part in the vilification of the political rival who turns out to be a witness in Case 1000: MK Yair Lapid, chairman of Yesh Atid.

Those successes, however fleeting they may be, are all the more impressive in light of the police’s conclusions, whose severity came as a surprise: They recommended charging Netanyahu on two counts of bribery (to the tune of one million shekels), and with fraud and breach of trust, and apparently can back their suspicions with a well-ordered body of evidence. Whether the latter is actually as full of holes as Swiss cheese, in the words of the suspect, or is as rotten as an apple riddled with wriggling worms has yet to be seen.

The death throes are going to be prolonged and ugly. The handwriting of Netanyahu’s end is already written on the wall. The lightning polls conducted a day after the police publicized their findings showed that Likud has not been weakened and in fact has been strengthened, but that its leader’s situation is dire and isn’t likely to improve. The majority of the public doesn’t believe him, prefers the police account and thinks the prime minister is corrupt and needs to resign. The breaking point will come when the attorney general announces his decision to indict the prime minister – if that’s what he decides. However, that is still months down the road.

Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu’s predecessor as prime minister, endured a similar process. Not long ago, someone said to Netanyahu: Maybe you should learn a lesson from Olmert (who protested his innocence and ended up in prison)? “But I didn’t do it,” he replied.

Throughout all his years in politics, Netanyahu has honed to an art the practice of shifting the campaign to his rival’s field. He defines himself through the agency of his foes, both in the international arena and in domestic party politics. In the run-up to the last election, for example, he portrayed Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni as traitors and collaborators with the Islamic State, who were directing the militants toward Jerusalem on their pickups.

When the investigations season got underway, it was the media and the left upon whom abuse was poured. When that lemon was squeezed dry, the premier aimed his slings and arrows at the police investigators: notably Maj. Gen. Roni Ritman, head of the force’s anti-fraud unit, and Commissioner Roni Alsheich. However, Alsheich, a religiously observant Mizrahi and former Shin Bet deputy chief who grew up in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, doesn’t go down well among Likudniks as an Israel-basher who’s dying to topple a right-wing prime minister.

So Netanyahu had to conjure up another demon urgently. He got just such a gift, so to speak, courtesy of the cops, who leaked the fact of Lapid’s involvement in the saga as a kind of bonus – even though his name didn’t appear in the police press communique.

Alsheich out; Lapid in. The latter instantly became a collaborator of the new ISIS, aka the Israel Police. Lapid is paving their way to Jerusalem, to the Prime Minister’s Bureau, so that they will remove the current tenant and he can replace him.

In the corrupt, debased culture that the ruling party is bequeathing to the public – with greater success, it has to be said, than might have been expected – if a citizen gives testimony to the police at their request, he becomes fair game for a campaign of character assassination. Lapid thus became the bad guy, the scheming Machiavelli who slipped into the headquarters of Lahav 433, the anti-fraud unit, in the dead of night in order to squeal on the prime minister.

In a speech he gave on Wednesday at a conference of the Union of Local Authorities, Netanyahu presented his case against Lapid. He did so elegantly, without militant rhetoric. He left the dirty work to his usual mudslinging contract workers, headed by Culture Minister Miri Regev and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin. Displaying a lack of statesmanlike propriety – as though they were part of the mafia closing ranks with the Don – the two slammed into Lapid, accusing him of perjuring himself with the aim of toppling Netanyahu and succeeding him as prime minister.

File photo: Yair Lapid.
Tomer Appelbaum

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), whose loathing for Lapid is well known, articulated the narrative for the premier perfectly: “The putsch that Lapid tried to foment against Netanyahu when he was a minister in his government, he transferred to the interrogation room.”

At the bottom of the food chain we found, once again, coalition whip David Amsalem (Likud). Unfailingly, he succeeds in dragging the discussion down to its lowest level, without even trying. It comes to him naturally. “Informer! Miserable stool pigeon!” was his conceptual contribution to the Knesset minutes, shortly after Lapid’s part in the affair became known. “From my earliest days as a boy, I was taught: ‘Dudi [a pet name for David], don’t squeal!” the lawmaker bragged as though he’d just been named a Righteous Among the Gentiles for hiding Jews in his home during the Holocaust, at extreme risk to his life.

Well, it’s good he learned something. Perhaps it was Amsalem’s heartwarming character traits that prompted the prime minister to appoint him to the senior post of whip. “Relax, I’ll never rat on you,” he promised Netanyahu – and won the lottery: They both share the same world view. They understand each other.

For Lapid, the night of February 13 marked a major milestone in his political career. It heralded the end of the era of vagueness and ambiguity. For a long time, the Yesh Atid leader was careful not to attack Netanyahu personally; he reserved his vitriol for “the left,” for human rights organizations, for Haaretz. Now he can feel more liberated. The gloves will come off. The price could well be paid by Avi Gabbay and Zionist Union, which Gabbay now heads. Yesh Atid will continue to gobble up their presumed Knesset seats.

In the short run, Lapid appears to have been hurt. The soft-right voters whom he sought to sway are liable to object to what he did (giving evidence against the prime minister) and hold a grudge against him. But in the long run, the situation might turn in his favor. The direct clash with Likud definitively positions Lapid as Netanyahu’s chief rival for the top spot. As long as the corruption issue continues to occupy public discourse, he is likely to find himself in the position of the big winner – the only one, actually.

In retrospect, the speed with which he rid himself of his friend and associate Jacob Perry, who resigned from the Knesset under a cloud last week, is also instructive. Maybe he was prescient and preferred to shed excess baggage. In Lapid’s journey to the kingdom, whoever doesn’t contribute will be thrown overboard. In that sense, he resembles the person he wants to succeed: zero sentiments.

Process of re-education

Netanyahu got a public tongue-lashing of an ethical nature from Naftali Bennett, leader of Habayit Hayehudi, but not from Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), which was actually expected. It was the education minister’s week to display propriety, beginning with the announcement that the Israel Prize for Literature was going to David Grossman and the accompanying warm words, and continuing with his remarks at the conference of the Union of Local Authorities: “Receiving gifts on such a large scale does not meet the expectations of Israel’s citizens from their prime minister.” That’s the minimum of the minimum, but in an era in which everything is examined via the lens of criminal conviction, and the term “that’s something that mustn’t be done” draws a snort of contempt – even those words were welcome.

Bennett is today the new best friend of the billionaire, the one who gave Netanyahu a gift estimated to be worth more than a billion shekels (more than $280 million). A gift whose recipient spit in the donor’s face, as we learned from the recordings of the premier’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, who sat in on the talks between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth Group publisher Arnon Mozes. A gift which in any normal country would be subject to criminal examination, or at least examined by the state comptroller in Israel, who gets on the case of party leaders who exceed their budgets by even just tens of thousands of shekels.

The relationship between Bennett and American casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson is getting warmer. They meet whenever the elderly “redhead,” as Netanyahu called him in a conversation with Mozes, visits Israel. And he’s here often.

The message Bennett chose to convey to the prime minister on the day after the police released their conclusions about the investigations was double-edged: both ethical/normative and practical. “There are some who maintain that the prime minister is incapable of managing the country’s affairs under the burden of the investigations,” he added, “but I don’t discern, at this stage, any damage to his performance as prime minister.”

When a key member of the security cabinet like Bennett qualifies the passing grade he gives to the head of the forum by adding “at this stage,” he’s signaling that his eyes and ears are wide open and his hand is on the floodgate. If he gets the impression, in the future, that the captain is not focused on navigating the ship of state but rather on dealing with his personal problems, this cabinet member will do the right thing. He’ll put the captain on notice.

Naftali Bennett and Sheldon Adelson at the cornerstone-laying for Ariel university's medical school, June 2017.
Moti Milrod

Missing three weeks

“I fought with all my might against the Israel Hayom law,” Netanyahu said on Wednesday evening, referring to the freebie newspaper, owned by Sheldon Adelson and effectively the premier’s mouthpiece, and to legislation that was aimed at prohibiting mass-circulation papers from being given away free. “I dissolved the Knesset and went into an election, risking my political future. How can anyone imagine that I tried to help Noni Mozes [whose Yedioth Ahronoth is the main victim of Adelson’s venture]? How is it that I, who blocked the Israel Hayom bill, am being investigated, but the 43 MKs who sponsored, advanced and voted for the law are not being investigated? It’s just absurd. Totally topsy-turvy.”

Not quite. Netanyahu did indeed fire two cabinet ministers, Lapid and Livni, and dissolved the Knesset on December 8, 2014, starting the countdown to an election three months later. But that wasn’t the final note in the symphony. In earlier stages, on which the police focused their investigations, he acted in various ways to pave the way for a bill, sponsored by MK Eitan Cabel (Labor), to reduce the freebie’s circulation.

The first piece of evidence to that effect was provided this week by the police: a meeting Netanyahu held at his residence one Friday, at the height of the improper dialogue he conducted with Mozes. Taking part in the meeting were MKs Zeev Elkin and Yariv Levin from the boss’ party, who were then his right and left hands in the Knesset. The prime minister asked them to moderate their fierce opposition to the bill.

But there was something more significant that Netanyahu did – or, more accurately, didn’t do. On November 12, 2014, the Israel Hayom bill passed in the Knesset with the votes of the coalition parties Hatnuah, Yisrael Beiteinu and Yesh Atid. On the days preceding the vote, then-Justice Minister Livni, Finance Minister Lapid and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman held consultations about how to handle the hot potato that Cabel had tossed their way.

All three despised the “Bibipaper,” which they likened to a Soviet propaganda organ, and were dying to be rid of it. Hours before the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted on the bill, Netanyahu informed Livni, the committee’s head, that he was allowing the coalition ministers to vote as they wished. They voted in favor, paving the legislation’s way to the Knesset plenum.

Livni, Lapid and Lieberman were certain that Netanyahu would ask one of his ministers to submit an appeal against the committee’s vote. The bill would have gone into deep freeze until the prime minister thawed it out and brought it to the full cabinet for another vote. Some bills languish for years in the drawer of the cabinet secretariat after they’ve been appealed. Such an appeal is a death warrant, unless the premier decides he wants to resuscitate the body.

However, to the surprise of the three, there was no appeal. The bill arrived in the plenum, where the coalition parties were also told they could vote as they wished, at Netanyahu’s direct order. The law passed. The prime minister was documented by the cameras of the Knesset Channel running dramatically to his chair to cast his vote against, still standing on his feet, and then, after the results of the vote appeared on the electronic board, muttering, “Shame! Shame on the Knesset!”

In retrospect, it appears that the whole exaggerated scene was just an act put on for the benefit of Netanyahu’s benefactor.

Three weeks later, Netanyahu summoned Lapid and Livni and fired them, on the baseless grounds that they had tried to create an alternative government behind his back with the ultra-Orthodox parties. Lapid with the Haredim – makes a lot of sense. Litzman, who had already been promised the moon and the stars in any new government Netanyahu established, helped him with this farce in real time and, as noted earlier, again this week.

What happened during those three weeks, between the first half of November, 2014, when Netanyahu didn’t bother to block the legislation, as he could easily have done, and December 2, when he fired Lapid and Livni? Maybe the negotiations with Mozes broke down? Maybe Adelson, who had been asked by Ari Harow to curtail his paper’s circulation, refused? Maybe the Las Vegas magnate made it clear to his friend and protégé that if the legislation was not torpedoed in the only way that by then remained possible – by dissolving the Knesset – his daily freebie would find itself a different horse to back, and Netanyahu would be left in the lurch, without either Yisrael Hayom or Yedioth?

Something must have happened, and if the police haven’t looked into it yet, perhaps doing so would help complete the investigation.

Labor leader Avi Gabbay.
rami shlosh

The voice

When karma goes out of whack, it’s hard to get it back on course. This week, Avi Gabbay, leader of the Labor Party and Zionist Union, delivered one of his best speeches. Maybe the best. If it hadn’t been for the police recommendations concerning Netanyahu that were published a few hours later, it would have dominated the media discourse that evening and Gabbay could have recouped some of the glitter that accompanied his leadership victory last summer, but has since disappeared, along with the electoral support that has likely gone over to Yesh Atid.

Gabbay was invited to a conference this week of the highest-circulation weekly in the national-religious realm: Besheva. He saw it as an opportunity to bring back his frustrated political “base” listening from home, and came equipped with a fierce denunciation of “Hardali” (Haredi-national religious) rabbis, who for many in the audience are mentors and giants of their generation. Gabbay spared no words. He called them extremists, inciters, separationists and humiliators. He accused his listeners, leaders of the national-religious movement and shapers of its opinions, of kowtowing and being silent when the Hardali rabbis spurn women who serve in the army; vilify senior army officers; call for the chief of staff’s resignation; urge people not to rent apartments to Arabs; and humiliate members of the LGBT community, validating every abomination as long as it’s consistent with their political posture; .

“You are silent,” he told the audience, “but it doesn’t end with silence about what the rabbis say. When the prime minister and his ministers incite against half the Jewish people and call them traitors and enemies, you are silent. That silence resonated during the Oslo period and peaked ahead of [Yitzhak] Rabin’s assassination. Maybe then you engaged in spiritual soul-searching, but it passed the moment you returned to positions of power.”

I asked Gabbay whether the speech was intended to vault him back into the headlines – which it didn’t do, because of the other events. He replied that what he said was the result of meetings he held with people from the national-religious movement around the country. “They tell me, ‘Listen, those rabbis aren’t us. Someone has to come out against them, and our leaders are silent.’”

So he decided to be their mouthpiece.