Analysis

This Time, Netanyahu Can’t Hide From the Allegations Against Him

The price of admission to the center of power was steep enough – and the requests brazen enough – that the prime minister may not get off so easy this time

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on February 14, 2018.
Ofer Vaknin

On a rainy day in early December 2016, two people who knew each other well came to the headquarters of the national fraud unit of the Israel Police. They entered two separate rooms and were questioned regarding two separate cases. Neither was apparently aware of the other’s presence.

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Sitting in one of the interrogation rooms that morning was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who was questioned under caution, meaning as a possible suspect and not simply a witness, on suspicion of fraud involving the running of the Prime Minister’s Residence. In another room sat Israeli Hollywood entertainment mogul Arnon Milchan, providing testimony for the first time in an investigation dubbed Case 1000, centering on suspicions that the prime minister and his wife had received benefits from Milchan worth hundreds of thousands of shekels, financing boxes of cigars, jewelry and bottles of Champagne.

Milchan came to the police offices without knowing exactly what was being sought from him. He didn’t have a lawyer and when he was asked about the benefits allegedly provided to the Netanyahus, he described a pattern that had developed over the years that included explicit requests from the couple for the perks. It was the admission ticket to the official residence, without which, apparently, he would find himself far from the center of power.

>>  Police say Netanyahu received gifts worth 1 million shekels ■ In return, he assisted Hollywood producer Milchan with tax breaks, his U.S. visa and his media interests ■ In a separate case, Netanyahu promoted a media mogul's interests in return for positive coverage >>

What is Bibi accused of? Your guide to the Netanyahu cases

Several hours later, Milchan returned to his car and left the fraud unit headquarters. Sara Netanyahu left her interrogation room after nearly 12 hours. Her questioning would later be described in the press as stormy. A very short time after she met the investigators, Milchan’s right-hand aide, Hadas Klein, received a familiar signal from the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem: Please replenish the Champagne supply.

Gifts were sent to the prime minister’s home while the undercover investigation was at its height. A few weeks passed and in January 2017, the prime minister himself was questioned under caution for the first time in the case. More than a year later, on Tuesday, February 13, 2018, the police announced that in their view, the Champagne and jewelry and boxes of cigars were not gifts given by “a friend of close to 20 years,” but systematic payment of bribes.

As the police would have it, these favors valued at about a million shekels ($283,000) were given to enlist the prime minister's help in Milchan’s grandiose business ventures by way of significant governmental activity for the entertainment mogul. Some of the activity, if it had come to fruition, would have been in clear conflict with the public’s interest and the interest of the state’s coffers.

The sharp and detailed police recommendation in Case 1000 was expected, but a courageous move by fraud unit chief Koresh Barnur and the outgoing investigation division head Meni Yitzhaki is reflected in the recommendation to charge the prime minister and the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Arnon Mozes, for bribery offenses in the second case, dubbed Case 2000. It is the more significant of the two cases, involving allegations that Netanyahu and Mozes had discussed Mozes’ ensuring more favorable coverage of the prime minister in return for government policy benefiting Yedioth.

In their summary, police investigators rebutted Netanyahu’s line of defense – that the prime minister never intended to follow through when he promised Mozes legislation to curb Yedioth’s major rival, the Israel Hayom daily. The police believe they found clear signs that Netanyahu took active steps to carry out the deal with Mozes, including approaching Israel Hayom’s owner, Sheldon Adelson, in an effort to reduce Adelson’s newspaper’s circulation.

They found that Netanyahu had even consulted with senior Knesset members over the prospect of softening proposed legislation regarding Israel Hayom, or passing it during the campaign leading up to the last Knesset election. For his part, Mozes is described as having explicitly promised the prime minister that in exchange for passage of legislation that would ensure the continued existence and success of Yedioth Ahronoth, he would use his media power for Netanyahu’s benefit – in other words, force his reporters to portray a false reality.

It should be noted that twice in the past, the police have recommended charging Netanyahu on suspicions of fraud and breach of trust, and twice the cases against him were closed, accompanied by a critical public report that did nothing to harm his political career or popularity. It appears that the difference this time is that the offenses that Netanyahu is accused of are more serious, involving allegations of receiving a million shekels worth of favors, and in Case 2000, allegations of a deal that would have delivered a major blow to freedom of the Israeli press.

The police recommendations now must be considered by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. What is expected of him at the moment is to decide as quickly as possible rather than deliberating endlessly in the lead-up to zero hour and a decision on whether to indict.