Analysis

Surrounded on All Sides: Netanyahu's Indictment for Bribery Is Now Inevitable

All the law enforcement bodies investigating Netanyahu's alleged corruption are falling into line ■ Settlers are imposing their will on the government, and the prime minister is letting them

Netanyahu, sweating, sits atop a pile of binders.
Amos Biderman

State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan’s recommendation to indict Benjamin Netanyahu on bribery charges in two cases does not leave Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit much wiggle room. (Case 4000, the Bezeq affair, involves allegations that telecommunications tycoon Shaul Elovitch gave the premier favorable media coverage on his Walla website in exchange for regulatory favors, while Case 2000 relates to Netanyahu’s dealings with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes.) In military terms, one would say that he’s surrounded.

All the law enforcement agencies, both the ones that were slandered by Netanyahu and the ones that the tarnishing machine does not yet have in its sights, are falling in line. First it was the police, followed by Liat Ben-Ari, from the taxation and finance department of the State Prosecutor’s Office, who accompanied the police investigation, and now also the penultimate level – all are of one mind, at least with respect to the Bezeq-Walla-Elovitch case. This is a serious affair, one involving allegations of bribery, plain and simple. With regard to Case 1000, which centers around the legality of gifts received by Netanyahu from wealthy patrons, opinions are split. If Mendelblit is looking for an escape hatch for Netanyahu, he might latch on to these differences in opinion or interpretation in order to save him from a triple bribery indictment.

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In light of these new developments one can say without a doubt that Netanyahu will be indicted. At least in one instance, Case 4000, he will most likely be accused of bribery – the gravest charge – as well as fraud and breach of trust. Nir Hefetz and Shlomo Filber, the two state witnesses who belonged to the most intimate circle surrounding Netanyahu, when he served as communications minister, have provided the incriminating evidence. Otherwise, the AG would never have approved signing such generous and lenient deals with them.

There is also no doubt that the preliminary decision on an indictment, subject to a hearing, will be made in the first quarter of 2019, by March at the latest. Mendelblit knows the investigative material very well. No evidence or testimony he’s presented with can be expected to catch him unawares.

This brings us to the political arena. The attorney general’s decision will be taken before any Knesset election. It could come in the midst of an election campaign. The grounds for the decision will be made public, and will include snippets from the testimony provided by Hefetz, Filber and the state witness in Cases 1000 and 2000, Ari Harow.

The meaning of this is that Likud and its candidate for prime minister will be campaigning in 2019 under circumstances that are quite different than any experienced in the past. There are those who believe that the fact that Netanyahu will be in the position of a persecuted victim will only add votes to the party, or at least will not detract from its support. There are those who think otherwise.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touring the West Bank on December 18, 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

Netanyahu’s dilemma is this: Should the critical and fateful hearing be conducted while he is prime minister (and also defense minister), secure in his post while managing the country’s affairs, which his lawyers believe will help him – or should he risk a wide-open election campaign, with only God knowing how it will end.

To be (prime minister during a hearing), or not to be, that is the question.

The date of the next election will probably be set in a month, after time runs out on the extension granted by the High Court of Justice to the government for passing a new military conscription law. At the present, late January seems like the most likely date for the Knesset to be dissolved, which would mean an election in May or early June. Netanyahu could keep the coalition afloat in various ways even beyond that, perhaps until September 2019. Would that be good for him, or bad? One shouldn’t envy him.

Pointless protest

This week’s attack on Netanyahu by cabinet ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) from both sides of the table was planned and coordinated in advance. It was a two-pronged ambush. Bennett, whose bruises from the fiasco of his fruitless resignation threat have still not yet healed, charged that the (at the time still) acting defense minister should have known about the breach in the fence around the West Bank settlement of Beit El, through which the terrorist who attacked and seriously injured a soldier penetrated the settlement.

Bennett’s charge is about as valid as someone calling out the education minister for failing in his duties because he was unaware that a certain school was employing a teacher who in the past had been the subject of a criminal action on pedophilia charges.

Shaked declared that she could not vote in favor of the prime minister’s appointment as defense minister, since Israel needs a full-time defense minister. She and Bennett abstained in the cabinet vote. But on the following day, they supported the appointment in the vote in the Knesset, after being compelled to do so by dint of coalition discipline.

Such an evolution the two of them are undergoing. From a supposed threat to resign due to the immense damage done to state security because of Bennett’s non-appointment as defense minister, to pushing the button in the Knesset plenum in favor of Netanyahu’s appointment, with a side-trip along the way to stage a pointless act of protest.

Their actions are not surprising. There is something about these two that is childish and immature. They would have done better to leave this entire ridiculous affair behind, not to mock, not to tease, not to be petty, but simply to be silent and cast a vote. They will not make any political hay by reviving traces of the earlier gaffe. On the contrary.

Their sense of distress is understandable: They are seeking separation, separation, separation from Netanyahu. That is the objective. As for the means – there’s nothing to write home about.

Prior to Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Bennett and Shaked took part in a demonstration held by the settlers on the hill across from the Knesset, in protest of “the government’s failure to act against terror.” Governmental norms in Israel have no parallel in any other country of the world. They are a blend of neighborhood, special-ed class and gang war.

It wasn’t only the three Habayit Hayehudi ministers, Bennett, Shaked and Uri Ariel, who came to demonstrate against the government, and specifically against the defense minister responsible for all the helplessness: Four Likud ministers were also in attendance – Zeev Elkin, Yariv Levin, Haim Katz and Ofir Akunis – along with ministers Eli Cohen and Yoav Gallant from the Kulanu party. Nine ministers with a fuzzy sense of reality and an obsequious attitude toward the settlers, who applauded all of the slogans, clichés and hollow statements that the speakers offered the crowd, from Cohen’s suggestion that the home of Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) be demolished, to the regular mantra of Levin that if we would only abolish the High Court of Justice, security would be restored to the territories big-time.

While Levin and Elkin can be associated with an ideology that would explain their presence there, when it comes to Akunis and Katz, ideology doesn’t enter the picture. For them, it’s just politics. The specter of primaries is what brought them to the stage. Afterward, they said that they just came to show their support for the bruised and battered settlers.

Little big lies

The Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meets in the West Bank settlement of Ofra.
Emil Salman

Last Thursday, just hours after the terror attack at the Givat Assaf junction in the West Bank, and a few days after the attack across from the settlement of Ofra, opposition leader Tzipi Livni asked the coordinator of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to urgently convene its Subcommittee for Intelligence and Secret Services. She felt members of that panel ought to be updated on the situation in the territories by relevant parties in the Shin Bet security agency and the Israel Defense Forces. The subcommittee is known to be hermetically sealed: Its members receive briefings on the most sensitive information, and nothing leaks out.

A few hours later, Livni received an invitation – not to a closed-door session but to what promised to be a total circus: a session of the full committee to be held in Ofra, in two parts. The first part would take place in camera, in the presence of IDF representatives; and the second part in public, along with the heads of regional councils in Judea and Samaria.

The committee is chaired by Avi Dichter (Likud), who will find himself running in his party primary. Last time around, he barely held on to the 26th place on the slate. Regional council heads in the West Bank wield much influence among the Likud electorate, and as we know, a little currying of favor never hurt anyone. Those invited to the Ofra event would surely be thankful to him for the platform they were given, even if it would come at the expense of the forum’s self-respect.

In the meeting’s public part, in front of the cameras, it was the turn of the opposition chairwoman to speak. Livni long ago ceased to grovel before the settlers. “You have an ideology, and that is legitimate,” she said to those present. “I want separation from the Palestinians; you want annexation. Okay. But don’t pretend that construction and annexation contribute to security. They harm security. What you are demanding is implementation of your political agenda.”

Indeed, the circus was not long in coming. Yossi Dagan, chairman of the Samaria Regional Council and the most self-righteous and loudest of the bunch, attacked Livni, screaming: “Why do you hate us? Why do you patronize us? We buried a resident, a 3-day-old baby. We expected that when you came here, you would express your condolences and help us obtain greater security for the settlements.”

Livni was not fazed by Dagan’s show of righteous indignation. “The baby you buried may be your resident, but he is the citizen of all of us. Your pain is my pain. But this is a political argument, and I will not pretend that it has to do with security. Those that decide on the security steps we take are the cabinet, the IDF and the Shin Bet – not you. Construction [of settlements] is not an answer to terror. There have been mass terror attacks in Tel Aviv, but you didn’t see me demonstrating and demanding to build in Tel Aviv.”

“They’re lying, lying, lying,” she told me this week. “They know the same as we do that the attackers are coming from Hamas. They know that the Palestinian Authority is fighting them, and cooperating with the IDF and the Shin Bet in attempting to prevent terror attacks. But from the settlers you hear nothing but Abu Mazen and Abu Mazen, and construction, construction, construction, construction. Under the cover of [fighting] terror, they are pushing their agenda. I do not accept it.”

I asked Livni if she doesn’t think she is carrying on a rearguard battle. After all, she and her colleagues are specialists in waging lost battles.

“I am expressing my opinion, and in this instance it is also the position of the defense establishment. My guess is that it is also the position of the prime minister,” she replied. “What needs to be done now is to calm tensions, not fan the flames and ignite the surroundings. What is truly dangerous is the ‘price-tag’ atmosphere in the territories. More and more construction just means augmenting the friction. Why hasn’t Netanyahu built up until now? Because he gets it. I hear him in closed forums. But he feels politically weak in the face of the extreme right. I am very worried by what his weakness vis-a-vis [Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel] Smotrich and Bennett could lead to with Netanyahu as defense minister.”

As security chief, I told her, Netanyahu acts deliberately and cautiously. He is not someone who is happy to go to war, and he’s even prepared to pay the political price for that with his electorate. On these matters you can trust him.

Protesters in Jerusalem hold up posters with a picture of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, calling to "take out sponsors of terrorism," December 16, 2018.
Emil Salman

“That’s correct,” Livni admitted. “Bibi will not go out and start a war. In that respect, he is responsible. But he is incapable of being less right-wing than Habayit Hayehudi. And they are pushing to build and to authorize the unlawful, and to evict families of terrorists, and he caves in to them. I’ll say it again, it isn’t him. I’ve spent hundreds of hours with him [as justice minister in an earlier Netanyahu government, in which she was responsible for diplomatic negotiations] – his actual positions are different.”

Groaning hilltops

An atmosphere of anarchy pervaded the Knesset this week. Two legislative bills were passed in preliminary votes, over both of which waved black flags of illegality and recklessness. The two MKs who introduced the bills – one that called for the deportation of families of terrorists, and the other for the “whitewashing” of unlawful settlement outposts – are the most extreme members of the Habayit Hayehudi faction: Smotrich and Moti Yogev.

In any normal parliament, these two would be spending their entire terms on the back benches of the plenary chamber or some other far-off corner where they could vanish from the public eye. But here, in the Netanyahu coalition, they are overseeing the passage of laws that could have strategic significance and dramatic security, legal, judicial and international – not to mention even that foul word, moral – implications.

Yogev and Smotrich are the tails that wag the dog that is the coalition and the prime minister. They seek – and succeed – to impose on the government of Israel the same standards that are practiced on the hilltops of the West Bank. That is where the sheep of their flock are inciting and striking, uprooting and imposing terror. The Netanyahu coalition that voted in favor of both the deportation law and the second version of the land-expropriation law, despite the legal opinion of the attorney general and the opposition of the defense establishment, is the governmental reflection of the hilltop bullies. The location of the government campus, in the part of Jerusalem known as Givat Ram (Hebrew for “High Hill”), is taking on new meaning.

On Thursday morning, Attorney General Mendelblit appeared at the Israel Business Conference, sponsored by the financial newspaper Globes. He railed against politicians who take pride of the fact that they are pushing through legislation that runs counter to his legal opinion, which is binding. “They are acting against the law and against the rule of law, which are the basis of our democracy,” he said.

Mendelblit is careful not to go too far and say that given such turbid currents, one might have expected that the prime minister and perhaps also the justice minister would be pounding on the table and dumping these abominations of bills into the trash can. But that’s not his style. There was a time that Netanyahu would have stopped such initiatives in the embryonic stage, and openly criticized them. That was the old Bibi, he of his two previous terms, between 2009 and 2015. Today he is like a fallen leaf.

“It is amazing to me,” one of Netanyahu’s ministers said to me this week, “that he permits these bills to pass. Because each of these bills is equivalent to a war crime, according to international law. Isn’t he afraid of receiving a summons to The Hague?”

Joining the hopeless festival of nationalism and security-fixation this week was the Yesh Atid faction. At the directive of party chair Yair Lapid, all of its members voted in favor of the law to deport terrorists’ family members.

One can’t expect much from Likud and Habayit Hayehudi or from the ultra-Orthodox parties. From Kulanu, maybe a little. From Yesh Atid and its half-baked pretensions, however, one might have expected that it would not support a piece of legislation that the attorney general had explicitly deemed unconstitutional – one that the Shin Bet chief and the IDF chief of staff had also cautioned against because its consequences are liable to be disastrous, and which, in an earlier form, had been disqualified by a special panel of nine Supreme Court justices some time ago.

Smotrich and Yogev operate on the basis of a messianic religious ideology. They don’t profess to be something other than what they are. They welcome every step, every law, every directive that promotes even by a single centimeter the annexation of the territories and the transformation of the State of Israel into an apartheid state. By dint of what explanation does Lapid instruct his party to support a bill, other than out of his own bloated ego, his standard nonsensical claim that when it comes to matters of security, he is “more right than Netanyahu,” and his pitiful attempts to confer upon himself the mantle of security maven simply because he was a member of the security cabinet member for a year and three quarters?

Here is my guess: If in the recent polls Yesh Atid had not lost the support of the equivalent of five Knesset seats to the hypothetical political party of Lt. Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz, Lapid would not have backed this legislation.