The stunning revelation Tuesday that Israeli police suspect one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest confidants of offering the attorney general’s job to a judge in 2015, in exchange for her killing a case against the premier’s wife, sounds familiar for Israelis with long political memory.
During Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, in 1997, his administration was rocked – and nearly brought down – by an influence-peddling scandal dubbed the “Bar-On-Hebron affair.”
The central figure in that particular scandal was Arye Dery, who has had two political careers in Israel. He is now interior minister and head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and a key member of Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Back in the 1990s, he was also a key coalition figure and government minister – but was facing bribery charges in 1996 when the then-Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair resigned from his post.
Police suspected a conspiracy then took place to try to find a new attorney general who could offer Dery a generous plea deal. Also at that time, a major debate was roiling the Israeli government over Netanyahu’s plan to redeploy forces in Hebron, following his agreement with then-Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
The police suspicions pointed to a deal in which Netanyahu would appoint lawyer Roni Bar-On as attorney general (he was Shas’ preferred candidate for the job). Bar-On would then allegedly give Dery his plea bargain and, in exchange, Shas would support the Hebron redeployment plan.
On January 10, 1997, Bar-On was named as attorney general – the most powerful post in the Israeli legal system. The legal community was in uproar, with many arguing that Bar-On’s background as a lawyer and career politician didn’t qualify him for the job.
Within 48 hours, Bar-On succumbed to the pressure and resigned as attorney general.
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A three-month police investigation followed after an Israeli TV channel broke the news about the alleged “Bar-On-Hebron” deal.
The evidence was strong enough for the police to recommend to then-State Prosecutor Edna Arbel and the newly appointed attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, that Netanyahu be charged with fraud and breach of trust, based on suspicions that he was party to the deal.
According to Israeli law, interfering in a top civil service appointment for personal gain is considered a breach of trust.
They also recommended charging Dery with breach of trust and extortion – the latter relating to the suspicion that he would have essentially blackmailed the prime minister by threatening not to support the Hebron plan if Bar-On wasn’t appointed.
Netanyahu’s appointment of Bar-On in order to satisfy Shas’ demand was alleged to be a breach of trust, in that he allowed potential extortion to occur.
Netanyahu was questioned under caution – meaning as someone who might be charged with a crime – for being party to the deal. His then-justice minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, and Avigdor Lieberman (director general of the Prime Minister’s Office at the time, now defense minister) were also implicated, with the police recommending they be charged as well.
Though the scandal rocked the political world, it had no lasting legal ramifications after Rubinstein closed the case against Netanyahu and Hanegbi in April 1997, and then Lieberman five months later, for lack of evidence.
Rubinstein said there was no concrete proof that Netanyahu had any knowledge of a deal involving Bar-On’s appointment in exchange for Shas’ political cooperation on Hebron. Rubinstein added that it requires near 100 percent certainty of conviction in order to indict a minister.
Rubinstein also said “it was a very difficult decision for us to reach – in fact, one of the most difficult we have ever had to reach.”
After Rubinstein’s decision was challenged in the courts, Israel’s Supreme Court decided to uphold his decision not to prosecute Netanyahu or Hanegbi and to only hold Dery legally responsible. It was not a unanimous decision, however, and the minority opinion held that there was, in fact, evidence to charge and possibly convict Netanyahu as well.
The final chapter on the affair took place in 2001, when Rubinstein decided to close the case against Dery, who was already serving a prison sentence at the time after being convicted of bribery in a separate matter.
Netanyahu was triumphant about his vindication by the courts, telling CNN in April 1997 that the case was “blown out of proportion and twisted out of shape,” and “there were people out to get us. But this is going nowhere. It’s done. It’s finished.”
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a communications and politics lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, told Haaretz that the new case involving Netanyahu confidant Nir Hefetz parallels the Bar-On-Hebron affair in more ways than one.
For example, it is the kind of political corruption case that is notoriously difficult to prove, one in which the courts tend to require a high level of proof (which was why those police recommendations in 1997 did not result in an indictment).
“These kinds of things are never done in a straightforward manner,” Lehman-Wilzig said. “Even the intermediaries have intermediaries. Even if you do trace the misdoing back to the original source, the source – in this case, allegedly Netanyahu – can say the intermediaries misunderstood him or didn’t do exactly what he believed they were going to do. Netanyahu has a very good level of deniability,” he noted.
Netanyahu, of course, is in a far different position politically than in 1997, something Lehman-Wilzig says has its pluses and minuses.
“On the one hand, back then he was not the “king” – as many of his core supporters believe today. He has a much stronger and deeper level of support. That’s the positive side.
“However, back then, ‘Bar-On-Hebron’ was the only case in which people thought there was some form of corruption going on with Netanyahu. Now, since it’s the fifth in a long list of cases, with a long list of witnesses, it all becomes much more believable – and that’s much worse.
“At some point soon,” Lehman-Wilzig added, “the polls may well show us we’ve reached a tipping point and even Bibi’s strongest supporters are saying enough is enough.”