Analysis

Netanyahu's Clear Message to AG: Indicting Me Would Be Capitulation to Media

As a suspect under investigation, the premier surely consulted with his attorneys about his Knesset address. Netanyahu's main target: Billionaire Arnon Milchan, who now seems to be his biggest legal problem.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, January 25, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

At the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defense speech, when he left the podium and went back to his seat at the cabinet table, many coalition members stepped over to offer encouragement. They lined up and one by one expressed their feelings – some with a handshake and some with a pat on the back; some took his elbow, nodded, tilted their heads or pursed their lips.

“I felt like I was at a shiva,” one Likud MK said afterward.

The prime minister came to the Knesset Wednesday to do “question hour.” The questions were asked – most of them legitimate, some petty, but Netanyahu didn’t answer them. He got help from Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who refused to let him address any question that did not relate to the three ministries he heads. Even Netanyahu seemed surprised at times by the breadth and density of the flak jacket Edelstein was wrapping him in.

At the end of the period, however, Edelstein gave Netanyahu 10 minutes to say what he pleased. It was then, reading from notes, that the suspect gave his version of the list of crimes for which he’s being investigated and will apparently continue to be investigated. If that’s all he has up his sleeve then his situation isn’t good, to put it mildly. Sometimes it almost sounded insulting, not to mention shallow.

For example, were his meetings with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, transcripts of which we’ve all heard about, like any routine meetings between a politician and a newspaper editor or publisher? Netanyahu and Mozes dealt in detail with reducing the circulation and influence of the premier’s journal, Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage by the rival paper and website.

“Why are they only investigating me,” he complained, in a transparently clear message aimed at the police and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit who ordered the investigation. He had another message specifically for Mendelblit, as well.

“They are pressuring the attorney general to file an indictment against me. They’re telling him to bring Netanyahu’s head.” In other words, if Mendelblit decides in the end to prosecute Netanyahu, it will be a capitulation to media pressure, not a reasoned decision.

But the main message was aimed at his (former?) friend and supplier of booze and cigars, billionaire Arnon Milchan, who gave information to the police that at this point seems to be Netanyahu’s biggest legal problem. “We’re friends,” he yelled from the podium, as if he was begging the potential witness, who has his fate in his hands, to listen and internalize. “For 20 years we’ve been close friends! Our wives are close friends! Our families are close!” It sounded like a plea.

Netanyahu read from notes. As a suspect under investigation, he surely consulted with his attorneys about what he could and could not say. The friendship between him and Milchan is his main line of defense in the “gifts” case, which at present looks like the more serious case against him from a legal perspective.

“The cigars and champagne have apparently affected you,” quipped opposition chairman Isaac Herzog, who addressed the Knesset after Netanyahu and called on him to resign. Herzog was incorrect: It was perhaps the lack of these items that made Netanyahu look persecuted, fearful, gloomy and gray.

There was something else unusual about his Knesset appearance on Wednesday. For the first time he didn’t recite his favorite mantra, the one that had become his trademark in recent week, “There will be nothing, because there was nothing.”

Because even to him it’s clear that we are no longer there, and haven’t been for a long time.