Analysis

Netanyahu Is at the Edge of an Abyss, but He Still Won't Quit – Even if Indicted

Members of Netanyahu's party want to see him go now, but they are afraid to say so publicly

Illustration: Netanyahu is in the foreground as a man falls off a roof in the background.
Amos Biderman

“On those whom the gods wish to punish,” the saying goes, “they inflict hubris.”

Case 4000, the giant-telecom affair, is the poisoned fruit of the sin of arrogance that infected Benjamin Netanyahu after the 2015 election. The big victory, his personal triumph, drugged him. The experienced politician, smart and sophisticated – who had seen an earlier prime minister, cabinet ministers and tycoons fall because of greed – threw caution to the wind. As for morality and values, they had long since been jettisoned (see: Case 1000, the cigars-and-champagne affair).

The combination of personal corruption and venal character, imperiousness and an Erdoganian attitude, together with the debased and debasing family environment that serves not to restrain him but to drive him ever deeper into the muck – all this leads to the edge of the abyss. That’s where he is now.

Netanyahu began his fourth term in May 2015 knowing he had to appoint two gatekeepers who, he believed, would protect him: an attorney general and a police commissioner. For the former post he picked Avichai Mendelblit, whom he had earlier chosen as his cabinet secretary, newly religious and the son of a Likudnik. For the latter role Netanyahu chose another religiously observant individual, a Mizrahi, a former resident of the Kiryat Arba settlement with patently right-wing views and a senior Shin Bet security service official: Roni Alsheich. For Netanyahu and his wife, a knitted kippa was always tantamount to an insurance policy. No longer.

He inserted an unprecedented clause into the coalition agreement, barring members from opposing any step in the communications realm that was taken by the communications minister – namely, Netanyahu himself. Upon taking office, over the phone, he fired the professional director general appointed by his predecessor, Gilad Erdan, and in his place installed a confidant, admirer and flunky, Shlomo Filber. Right-wing, religiously observant.

The Elovitch family celebrated the departure of the hostile communications minister, Erdan. Anecdote: Two years ago, Or Elovitch, who was arrested this week together with his father Shaul – the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications company – ran into a friend. As they stood and chatted, Public Security Minister Erdan passed by. “That man almost cost us a billion shekels,” the younger Elovitch remarked.

He was referring to Erdan’s planned “wholesale” reform under which Bezeq, would have had to sell its landline services to competing companies for a fair price. Bezeq worked feverishly to torpedo the plan. The rotation of ministers came in the nick of time.

Erdan’s plans and reforms were tossed out and instead, benefits and concessions were heaped upon Elovitch, who, along with his wife, Iris, is also a personal friend of the billionaire-coddling Netanyahus. The Communications Ministry became an arm of Elovitch and Bezeq, while the popular Walla! news website, also owned by Elovitch, mobilized 24/7 on behalf of Sara and Bibi.

All this was done in full public view, with arrogance, crudeness and brutality. “They [all] behaved incredibly stupidly,” someone who, unfortunately for him, was in on the deal, said this week.

Walla! CEO Ilan Yeshua, who was humiliated, scorned and trampled, prepared himself for a rainy day. For weeks now he has been “cooperating with the police investigation,” as they say in Britain.

Investigators of the Israel Securities Authority and the Israel Police had an easy time, relatively. Getting the suspended Communications Ministry director general, Shlomo Filber, to turn state’s evidence did not involve a great deal of persuasion. When he was arrested Sunday morning, he was already halfway there.

His excuses for his criminal behavior, as reported, were meager and embarrassing: He told his friends that he was “manipulated,” “exploited,” “held hostage.” He hadn’t the slightest idea what was happening at Walla!. He had received orders from Netanyahu to shower hundreds of millions of shekels on Bezeq and Elovitch, and did so without exercising any judgment of his own. And all of that was done by one of religious Zionism’s finest. The option of acting honestly apparently never occurred to Filber; only when he was caught did he see the light.

Netanyahu’s pathological obsession with the media – his passion to control, suppress and shape it, to sell parts of it to friends, to reward his coddlers and crush his critics – is not just another caprice: It’s an addiction that demands therapy. He has behaved like an investment banker, not a prime minister, spending all his time looking for buyers.

The day will come, perhaps, when the heads of Channel 10 and the CEOs of the Reshet and Keshet television franchises, and their news unit, will talk publicly about the vast pressure the Prime Minister’s Bureau exerted on them in the last three years. Channel 10 lay under that steamroller to fight for its life; the former Channel 2 was bullied when its executives tried to thwart the split between Reshet and Keshet, for fear it would affect their profits and reduce their power.

During that period, the messages transmitted from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv were unequivocally clear: Soften the coverage, leave Sara alone, go along with Bibi – and the split in Channel 2 won’t happen; we won’t hurt you in your pocket. That was an embryonic proposal for a bribery deal. Netanyahu aimed to turn Channel 2 into another Walla!, just as he turned Walla! into the internet version of the freebie Israel Hayom, his mouthpiece.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara in Ashkelon, southern Israel, February 20, 2018.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

The madness and caprice didn’t stop at hard news but entered the realm of satire. While Sara Netanyahu was being investigation on suspicion of having inflated expenses at the Prime Minister’s Residence, her husband’s confidants demanded that Keshet desist from its (terrific) imitation of The Lady on its satirical show “A Wonderful Country.” The network was also told to clamp down on legal affairs correspondent Guy Peleg. “If Channel 2 is split, it will be because of Peleg,” was the message.

In spring 2016, when there were coalition negotiations underway with MK Isaac Herzog, his Zionist Union party asked for the communications portfolio. Netanyahu scoffed: “I would rather give you the premiership,” he said at a meeting with Herzog, Histadrut labor federation chair Avi Nissenkorn and others. At the time it sounded like a joke: Herzog never imagined that a can of worms wriggled under the vehement refusal, not to mention a criminal Pandora’s box.

In light of the current Case 4000 investigation, it appears that because of the communications portfolio and because the uncontrollable urge to view the media as the be-all and end-all – Netanyahu is very close to losing the premiership and possibly also his liberty.

Virtual reality

In the penultimate clip Netanyahu posted on his Facebook page this week, he looks as though the rug has been pulled from under him. His arguments, along the lines of “They’re trying to pin a new rap on me,” sound pathetic. He dispatched Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev to the Knesset to declare that “the mountain has turned out to be a molehill.”

Likud MK Miki Zohar continues to scream that the left and the media are pulling the equivalent of the “Rabin assassination” on Netanyahu.

For his part, coalition Whip David Amsalem (Likud) declared that he wouldn’t want his daughter to marry someone who turned state’s evidence. Not because such an individual had by definition committed a crime, but because he’s an “informer.”

The state’s evidence agreement signed with Shlomo Filber, aka Netanyahu’s “black box,” sent shock waves through the political arena. All the players are scrambling for shelter, trying to guess what the prime minister’s next step will be. Netanyahu is perceived as a wounded animal fighting for its life and behaving unpredictably.

The call for Netanyahu to declare himself temporarily incapacitated is ridiculous. Not only because the measure is temporary – incapacity can last for only 100 days, after which the government must appoint a new prime minister from his party – but also because it doesn't serve Netanyahu. What does he have today other than his status, the political-security aura, the ability to decide when the interrogators will come to him and how much time he’ll allot them for questioning? The moment he takes himself out, he'll lose all these, turning into a rank-and-file Knesset member.

Seemingly, it's within Netanyahu's interests to call for an immediate election. It would be his last without an indictment hanging over his head.  According to the polls, he is expected to win the vote. Will he be able to form a coalition with the specter of a trial hanging over him? We don't know.

On the other hand, an election is a risk. No one knows which developments will emerge in the 90-100 days between the dissolution of the Knesset and Election Day. In the interim, new cases could come to light, new testimony might be made public. The message that Netanyahu is conveying is: I won't move up the election.

Either way, if he wishes to dissolve the Knesset and force an early election upon it, he will need the agreement of his current coalition partners – which are the only relevant candidates for the next round as well. He will need a reasonable cause, so as not to appear like a criminal looking for a way out at the polls. There's only one such cause at the moment: the army draft bill that the ultra-Orthodox parties want to pass in the coming weeks. If Netanyahu is looking for a branch to hang on to, this could be it.  

Outwardly, Netanyahu is playing the game: All’s well, he’s in control. Cabinet members have said he was totally focused at meetings. He doesn't appear stressed in his public speeches. This virtual reality is serving him as well as his coalition parties for now.

Treasury Minister Moshe Kahlon, leader of Kulanu, spoke with someone toward the end of one of these dramatic and eventful days. “So, what’s going to be?” he was asked. “What? Did something happen?” he replied. “You mean you don’t know?” came the response, to which Kahlon answered, “I haven’t stuck my head out of the office all day. I have a million things to do. I can’t be bothered with background noise.”

In three weeks, the 2019 budget is slated to go to the Knesset, having been agreed upon by the government. After having erected the structure, will its builders and engineers now plant a ton of explosives under its foundations and push down on the plunger?

The position taken by some party heads – to wait for the attorney general to decide – is not unreasonable. This is Israel, a country lacking in established norms, not Scandinavia. And it’s precisely the latest developments, including the signing of one state’s evidence agreement and possibly another one in the offing, that could prompt Mendelblit to press on the gas instead of jamming on the brakes.

A day before it was learned that Filber had turned state’s evidence, Netanyahu consulted his lawyer and members of his close circle (the few who remain and haven’t been caught up in the investigations net). The decision that emerged was unequivocal: We’ll keep going to the end, and try to get past an indictment, which will without doubt be filed; we will strive to get through a court case while also running the country. We won’t let up, we won’t give up.

A Likud minister said this week in a private conversation that Netanyahu is already chomping at the bit to leave for the United States – which he’s scheduled to do in eight days, for the annual AIPAC policy conference and for a meeting with President Donald Trump. He hopes the trip will infuse his supporters with a bit of optimism. He will deliver the kind of speech that only he knows how to deliver, Jewish Republicans will cheer him as though “there is nothing and never was anything” – and Trump will heap expressions of friendship on him.

In the meantime, senior figures in Likud are watching from the sidelines as their leader becomes increasingly mired in new, serious suspicions. Their hearts do not go out to him; they refer to him as a dead duck. I asked one why he and a few of his colleagues don’t go to Bibi’s office, one by one, and ask him to step aside and allow one of them to take his place for the next year.

“He’ll tell us, ‘Go jump in the lake’ – and then what?” the Likudnik replied.

Dov Gil-Har, right, at Kan. His pre-election interview for Walla! in March 2015 enraged Netanyahu.
Gil Cohen Magen

Story of an interview

Media bias isn’t only seen in what’s published or aired, but mainly in what isn’t: what’s shelved or censored. What’s hidden from the eye is more dangerous than what’s openly discussed.

Appearing here for the first time, the following story about a day in the life of the Walla! website and its dealings with the Prime Minister’s Bureau, is far graver than the glowing images of The Lady and the (unsigned) PR texts that accompanied them. This is the very embodiment of journalistic corruption. It’s the essence of the bribery.

We return to the eve of the 2015 election. During the campaign Netanyahu maintains media silence, but in the week before Election Day, concern gnaws at him. The internal polls he’s conducting, as well as those in the media, bode ill for Likud. He decides to change his strategy. On March 10, eight days before the vote, his bureau offers his and his wife’s home as a venue for an interview.

Up til now, he’d given interviews only to people who he knew would grovel at his feet: Oded Menashe, Yehoram Gaon, David Ben Bassat. Now Netanyahu realizes he has to extend his public exposure beyond sycophantic entertainers, singers and broadcasters. He’s certain that the highly popular Walla! site will give him what he’s after. He waits for an interviewer who will scratch his back.

Ironically, though, on that very day, a new guy joins the site as a senior newscaster, the veteran journalist Dov Gil-Har (who is currently with the Kan Broadcasting Corporation, the successor to the Israel Broadcasting Authority – and who testified Thursday in Case 4000). He heads with a crew to the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem for his first assignment.

When the interviewer and his interview leave, the prime minister and his advisers are gritting their teeth and their faces are flushed with anger. All the tough questions were asked: about the country’s high cost of living and the high cost of housing, about the Netanyahus’ profligate lifestyle, the deadlock in the peace talks, the latest state comptroller’s report, the demagogic campaign broadcasts featuring port workers and Hamas, the resignation in protest of the committee that was supposed to award the Israel Prize for Literature and more.

That afternoon, Gil-Har and the camera crew returned to Walla! headquarters, in north Tel Aviv, anticipating seeing the finished product on the site’s homepage within a couple of hours. After all, they’d accomplished something by conducting a proper journalistic interview before all the other websites, newspapers and national television and radio stations.

Nada. Hours pass. Night falls, morning comes – and still no trace of an online interview. One day passes, and another, and the interview with the prime minister, less than a week before Election Day, languishes in some drawer.

We can imagine what took place during those days on the hotline between Shaul Elovitch, owner of Walla!; its CEO, Ilan Yeshua; and Netanyahu and his lackeys. The order was transmitted from Balfour Street to Pinkas Street, corner of Ibn Gabirol: Do not broadcast!

In the meantime, the panic in Likud and in the Netanyahu residence surged. The polls were grim. Likud campaign headquarters decided to burst into the media with all its might and threaten right-wing voters with almost-certain loss of power if they didn’t come back home to Likud.

On Thursday, March 12, six days before the election, the Prime Minister’s Bureau urgently invited journalists from Channels 1, 2 and 10 for a marathon of interviews. Channel 2 sent Yonit Levy, Channel 1 sent Yaakov Eilon and Channel 10 dispatched Raviv Drucker – although Netanyahu nixed him and his bosses yielded. The interviewers did their work, and everyone waited for the results to be broadcast on prime-time news at 8 P.M.

The people at Walla! realized the jig was up, they could delay no longer. An uprising erupted in the corridors and editors’ offices. The Gil-Har interview was uploaded to the homepage, uncut and unedited, that evening – parallel to the TV broadcasts, when few were surfing Walla!

That was not the end of the fantastical saga. After a mere hour, the interview was removed from the top spot on the home page and slip-slided down until it was buried somewhere at the bottom of the page. The efforts to conceal the item, the days of hesitation, bore fruit: Few people saw the interview.

Seven months later, at the end of October 2015, Haaretz published Gidi Weitz’s investigative report about the reciprocal relations between Elovitch and Netanyahu, Bezeq and Walla!, the Communications Ministry, Filber and all the rest.

Gil-Har read it and was appalled, as were others at his place of employ. He called CEO Yeshua and warned him that if things continued in this vein, it would end in the interrogation rooms of the Israel Police. He discerned all the elements of bribery: the quid pro quo, the vested interests, the reforms that were blocked, the benefits that were handed out, the interconnections, the give-and-take. Now it was all out in the open.

Another year passed before the arrival of a new chief editor at the website, Aviram Elad. A few weeks after he came on the scene, and before Case 2000 burst into our lives, Yeshua summoned him and his deputy, Michal Klein. “You want to do journalism?” he asked, in earnest. “Go ahead, do journalism.”