Analysis

The Definitive Proof That Netanyahu's Lackeys Are Pushing Anti-police Legislation on His Behalf

A gangster movie scene that unfolded at the Knesset this week killed any pretense about a bill that undermines the investigation into alleged corruption by Netanyahu

Illustration: David Bitan and David Amsalem throw Benny Begin into the trunk of a car. The driver is seen smoking a cigar.
Amos Biderman

No proof was needed to show that the wave of anti-police legislation has been forged in the spirit, image and form of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and that its sponsors are his lackeys. Everything that’s been happening here in recent months concerning the investigations of the prime minister reeks like a dead cat. But blunt, transparent moves aimed at thwarting the law-enforcement system for the sake of the top-ranking suspect no longer upsets anyone.

But even the most naive and biased of people, those who preferred to believe that the two “Dudis” – Likud MKs David Amsalem and David Bitan – and in their wake the rest of their submissive, conformist Knesset faction, are operating without connection to the mother ship on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, saw the mask ripped off this week. The bluff was revealed to all courtesy of Benny Begin, the only Likud MK who adamantly refuses time and again to lend a hand to the illegal, unconstitutional, unstatesmanlike and undemocratic moves that have become the symbol of the ruling party – and is punished for it.

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In a debate by the Knesset’s Interior and Environment Committee about Amsalem’s “recommendations bill,” whose purpose is to prevent the police from formalizing (or making public) their conclusions from their investigations in the cases involving Netanyahu, Begin demanded that the sponsor – and committee chairman – add a clause stipulating that the legislation would be applicable to cases involving actions occurring only after its publication in the official Government Gazette. In other words, it would not be valid with regard to Netanyahu. It’s elementary: Retroactive legislation will always be personal, and is therefore by definition corrupt. Amsalem exploded, of course.

We were then witness to a scene that would not be out of place in a mafia movie. Amsalem, perspiring and making threatening gestures, bends over the refined Mr. Begin, sticks a pudgy finger at him and demands that he vote for the bill, otherwise he’ll be removed from the committee. To Begin’s left, coalition whip Bitan, in a less aggressive pose, tries to persuade Begin in what looks to be a more conciliatory manner. Thus, David A. and David B., like the duo of hired guns Jules and Vincent in “Pulp Fiction,” handle the wayward client the way they know best. The end is known: Begin was booted off the committee, to be replaced by Bitan (who else?).

This is what’s enchanting about Likud 2017. What used to be done behind the scenes, politely, with understatement, now takes place in the town square, shamelessly, with the body language and terminology of Betar Jerusalem soccer fans. And Netanyahu? He, of course, “didn’t know,” not about the public hazing of Begin or about his removal from the committee. No one bothered to update him.

Even with the replacement of Begin, the abominable bill is likely to encounter obstacles. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu faction is against retroactive legislation. Even members of Habayit Hayehudi, the party of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked – who’s surrounded by senior state prosecutors who see the bill as a disaster – are having a hard time supporting legislation with such a transparent purpose.

The law-enforcement establishment is not oblivious to goings-on in the political field. The police and state prosecution are in high gear, trying to finalize their work on Cases 1000 and 2000 (regarding, respectively, suspicions related to gifts received by Netanyahu, and to possibly illegal conversations he had with the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, in order to get positive coverage) before Amsalem’s bill becomes law, if it does.

Almost daily, long meetings about the cases are being held with Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and the police. The investigators, and the prosecutor working with them, Liat Ben Ari, have not yet decided whether to submit their findings from Cases 1000 and 2000 together to State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. Alternately, whichever case is ready first could be pulled out of the oven and served up. That way, even if Amsalem’s bill becomes law, at least one of the cases would escape its punishment. It would be possible to determine where an evidentiary foundation exists and where it doesn’t.

In terms of the media, the police are waiting to see what happens with the bill. If the legislation stalls, the police will keep at it. If it moves ahead, we can expect to see the top brass, from the commissioner down, explaining to the media why an investigative file without a summation or a proper mapping of its evidentiary basis is a half-baked dish, harmful to the work of the state prosecution and contrary to the public interest.

That will constitute a significant exacerbation of the battle being fought between the politicians, led by the prime minister, and the gatekeepers. The top ranks of the police have reached the conclusion that the situation is serious and dangerous enough to warrant taking the gloves off. And when that happens, clubs are sometimes pulled out.

Defender of democracy

For almost 24 hours, the nation held its breath waiting for Netanyahu’s “condemnation” of the political lynching of President Reuven Rivlin after the latter decided to reject the request for a pardon filed by Elor Azaria, the so-called Hebron shooter. And then it came.

In the weekly meeting of Likud MKs, the prime minister said a few words to the media, referring to himself at the outset. “In a democracy, it’s permissible to criticize anyone – who knows that better than I?” he began. “Not all criticism is incitement. Criticism is permitted, but without bashing, without delegitimizing.” He stressed that word, pausing dramatically as a cynical smile spread across his face.

“Without hangmen’s nooses” (another emphasis, same smile), “without Nazi uniforms in which we have all been attired – and are attired. That is out of bounds when it’s aimed at the president, or” – another emphasis – “at any public representative.” Rivlin was mentioned only in passing.

“Substantive criticism is the very soul of democracy,” thus continued the man who conducts witch hunts against the media, and dispatches his Amsalems and Bitans to liquidate the guardians of democracy.

People who spoke with Rivlin related that even he, experienced and scarred as he is, and not liable to be shocked or disappointed by anything involving Netanyahu, could hardly believe his ears. Or his eyes. Not only were the remarks scornful and ironic. The look on the speaker’s face signaled to his audience: Hey, don’t stop.

The first to assail Rivlin following the Azaria decision were Culture Minister Miri Regev and MKs Bitan and Oren Hazan (all from Likud). Three’s company. Regev was filmed wagging a finger: “The president missed the chance of his life,” she screeched. “He abandoned the soldier! He undercut the institution of the pardon.”

Bitan accused Rivlin of two-facedness: being tough with Azaria, but “merciful to [former Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert, his good friend from their childhood in Jerusalem.”

A reasonable individual, who is not a news junkie, could be excused for thinking that Rivlin had been discriminatory in dealing with a privileged childhood pal, who was pardoned, and an army grunt, who wasn’t. But other than “Olmert” and “Jerusalem,” there wasn’t a word of truth in Bitan’s statement.

Rivlin and Olmert are involved in one of the most passionate feuds in Israeli politics, whose roots hark back to the Jerusalem branch of the (pre-Likud) Herut party, and went downhill from there. Friends they’re not.

The president did not grant Olmert a pardon: Last March he rejected a pardon request that was submitted to him. In July, after Olmert’s prison term was cut by the parole board, the president canceled the restrictions on inmates who are released early, such as a ban on going abroad.

Bitan knows this. He’s exploiting the public’s short memory. People remember that Olmert and Rivlin are Jerusalemites from the same party, so something will stick. And Bitan has no problem falsifying facts on camera, expressionlessly.

In retrospect, Netanyahu screwed up the Azaria case. This was not how he planned to handle the issue of the pardon, which he undoubtedly expected would not be granted without some sort of foundation.

What happened was Rivlin returned from Los Angeles on Friday. On Sunday he dealt with the pardon request of Yonatan Hailo, sentenced to life for murdering the person who raped him. At the Justice Ministry’s recommendation, Rivlin decided to pardon Hailo. He then took up the Azaria case. All the relevant documents were available and he made his decision.

When the president’s office released the announcement about Azaria, Netanyahu was being questioned by police investigators and could not be contacted. Regev and Bitan, used to getting directives from on high, were like goats without a goatherd. They decided to slam Rivlin, knowing that this is what their beleaguered boss would want from them.

But they, and particularly she, went one step, or 100, too far. Their reaction didn’t constitute incitement in the criminal sense, but it was a signal to the wackos that infest the social networks. The presidential Facebook page was flooded by curses, threats and death wishes.

When Netanyahu emerged, he encountered a situation different from what he’d hoped for. Instead of a discussion focused on the wretched Azaria, whom the heartless president had refused to show compassion, the newscasts and websites were abuzz with the comments of Regev, Bitan and Hazan, and with the turgid wave of reactions that surged in their wake.

The next day, in the faction meeting, Netanyahu had no alternative but to address the madness sweeping the social networks. He did it as though under coercion, and whined as noted, about his own bitter fate. Here, too, the police are to blame, as with everything bad that’s happening to him lately.

Street battles

Following a two-year truce, a new round in the never-ending war between Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is brewing, over government budgeting for the city. This battle may be even more toxic than its predecessors, which weren’t exactly fun and games.

Background info: Kahlon and Barkat are the bitterest of rivals. In his 30 months in office, Kahlon hasn’t agreed to meet with the mayor even once. Barkat is convinced that the reason for the boycott is his support for Netanyahu and Likud in the 2015 election, rather than for Kulanu. Kahlon says he won’t meet Barkat because, he’s “a hooligan and a manipulator who is running his primary campaign in Likud at my expense.” Barkat claims Kahlon is punishiing his city because of their spat. “Me? Revenge?” Kahlon fumes. “During my tenure in office, Jerusalem has received more than it has since the time of King David – in spite of Barkat, not thanks to him.”

On January 11, the cabinet is due to approve the 2019 budget. As soon as he learned that Netanyahu and Kahlon were angling for an early decision on the budget, Barkat declared war. He is now producing video clips in which Likudniks urge the minister “to strengthen our capital.” Next month, he intends to launch an expensive PR campaign, funded by Jerusalem taxpayers’ money, intended to shame Kahlon for setting back generations’-old dreams for his city.

Barkat is also urging MKs to back a bill aimed at amending the Basic Law: Jerusalem, sponsored by MKs Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) and Hilik Bar (Zionist Union). The legislation, supported by 51 MKs and being pushed by coalition whip Bitan, stipulates that Jerusalem will receive 970 million shekels ($275 million) a year. A prodigious amount in municipal terms.

Four weeks ago, Bitan wanted to put the matter to a vote in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation before submitting it to the Knesset, where it’s guaranteed a large majority. Kahlon vetoed the idea and said that if Bitan insisted, Netanyahu would have to find himself a new finance minister and perhaps a new coalition. Bitan postponed the move for two weeks. Saturday night, when Kahlon discovered that the proposal was back on the committee’s agenda, he renewed the threat and the veto. Bitan panicked and declared another postponement.

Encountering MK Rachel Azaria, from Kulanu, in the Knesset, Bitan told her, scowling, “I’m fed up with your behavior. If your party keeps this up, I will bust the coalition.” Azaria, who has very little regard for Barkat – with whom she worked in the Jerusalem Municipality – shrugged. “Do what you want,” she replied.

At this stage, Barkat plans to harass Kahlon during budget discussions by the Knesset’s Finance Committee, by means of MKs who back his demand. “As long as Kahlon doesn’t give in, he will run into stone walls in the committee,” people close to Barkat say. “We will trip him up at every step, we will delay the votes.”

This week, Kahlon held a meeting of top treasury officials to discuss the budget. When they came to the item that drives him up the wall, he said, “Don’t deprive Jerusalem by so much as a shekel because of my situation with Barkat, but don’t give it even one extra shekel, because of that character. Don’t give in to his bullying tactics.”

In short, if Barkat thinks he will succeed in coercing someone as stubborn as Kahlon into doing his bidding, he deserves a failing grade both in reading the political map and in human intelligence. Netanyahu, who owes Barkat, would like to help, but he’s afraid to step on the toes of the finance minister, without whom there’s no coalition.