“He’s a winner, he’s highly respected, he’s highly thought of by all,” Trump enthused in a video endorsement in 2013. “A strong prime minister is a strong Israel.”
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Though Netanyahu will surely do his best to present the ultra-confident swagger that appealed to the United States president back then, which also garnered him a Time Magazine cover proclaiming him “King Bibi,” Israelis know that the king sits uneasily on his throne these days.
He arrives in Washington as a leader under criminal investigation, suspected not just of a single transgression but a multi-pronged probe looking into a range of alleged misdeeds. Although he has repeatedly declared there is “nothing” to any of them and characterized the investigations as a witch hunt somehow inspired by political adversaries and media elites who are out to get him, the odds that at least one of them will catch up with him has visibly cracked his previously impenetrable political armor.
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The baggage he carries with him surely puts a damper on what should otherwise be an occasion to celebrate – a visit to a far friendlier White House than Barack Obama’s, the first Republican president the GOP-friendly prime minister has ever had the opportunity to deal with. The specter of the investigations also lessens his leverage with the Trump administration as they talk policy, and could make American officials think carefully about resting any long-term plans on the assumption that Netanyahu will remain at Israel’s helm (though with Trump’s volatile job performance and low approval numbers, Israelis might be having similar concerns about the U.S. president).
While Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s final decision whether or not to prosecute Netanyahu as a result of any of the cases against him may not be cast for months, they still cast a shadow, both at home and abroad, weakening his influence. And if there’s one thing Trump has no use for – it is weakness.
Investigation #1: Case 1000 – Pink Champagne, Cigars and Jewelry
Popularly known as the “champagne and cigars case,” these allegations involve the systematic giving of expensive cigars and wines worth tens of thousands of dollars by Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan to Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu. The couple does not deny receiving the gifts, but have insisted both to police investigators and in public that the they represented nothing more than genuine spontaneous tokens of friendship, that there was no quid pro quo expected or delivered, and therefore, no crime. But the number and high value of the gifts, the length of time that they were supplied to the Netanyahus and apparent evidence that the Netanyahus made specific requests for certain “gifts” suggests otherwise.
Moreover, the prime minister has pled ignorance. He told investigators that in the case of the wine and champagne, he was unaware they were being supplied by Milchan to his wife Sara. He also said he was unaware of the individual price and cumulative value of the cigars he allegedly received over a number of years from Milchan.
In addition to the smokes and drinks, Milchan is believed to have given Sara Netanyahu jewelry worth about 10,000 shekels ($2,700) as a birthday gift last year after she specifically requested the item and the prime minister assured him it was ethically acceptable.
In addition to Milchan, the other major figure in Case 1000 is Australian billionaire James Packer, who was summoned by the police to testify over lavish gifts he allegedly gave to the Netanyahu family. Police reportedly suspected Packer of giving the Netanyahus’ son Yair lavish gifts, including free hotel rooms and flights, in order to influence his father.
Of all the probes involving Netanyahu, Case 1000 appears to be closest to resolution. Milchan, Packer and various staff members have all been questioned, as has the prime minister, his wife and son. Police are deciding whether or not to recommend an indictment for breach of trust and for the more serious charge of accepting a bribe.
Investigation #2: Case 2000 – Media Moguls and Secret Tapes
The case deals with an alleged attempt by Netanyahu to broker favorable media coverage with the publisher of the high-circulation newspaper Yediot Ahronoth’s publisher Arnon Mozes in exchange for pushing legislation in the Knesset that would hamper its competitor Israel Hayom, owned by Netanyahu’s backer Sheldon Adelson.
The transcripts of secret tapes of conversations between Netanyahu and Mozes, leaked to the media and dramatically read out loud on the evening news, had the two men discussing how they could make a deal involving positive coverage for the prime minister, suppressing negative stories and planting journalists of his choice as employees.
In exchange, Netanyahu told Mozes he would use his political muscle to back legislation that would force Israel Hayom to charge a payment for its newspaper editions. This would have presumably weakened the newspaper owned by Adelson and reinstated Yedioth Ahronoth to its previous dominance.
Mozes, according to the Israeli media, has told police fraud investigators that Netanyahu had behaved as if he was in essence the publisher of Israel Hayom, and conducted negotiations as if he owned that newspaper. This is particularly problematic considering that Netanyahu serves as communications minister, presumably in charge of regulating the nation’s media.
Investigation #3: Case 3000 – Submarines, Germans and Lawyers
The third police probe has only recently developed into a full-blown criminal investigation after the first two cases, and has become known as the “Submarine Affair.”
Police are looking into allegations that Netanyahu’s personal lawyer, advisor and cousin David Shimron lobbied defense officials on behalf of German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp for a multimillion dollar submarine sale. The questions: Did it happen, was Netanyahu aware of it (he denies it) and most seriously, if he took any steps to make it happen.
Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon testified to the police that Netanyahu was directly and actively involved in canceling a previous Defense Ministry bid for the purchase of subs so that they could be purchased from ThyssenKrupp, television’s Channel 2 News has reported. According to that report, Ya’alon also told the police that Netanyahu conducted talks with German government officials to purchase the vessels from ThyssenKrupp behind the back of the government defense establishment. He also said the prime minister also allegedly wanted to purchase two anti-submarine ships, but the deal was shelved in the face of vehement opposition by Ya’alon and the defense establishment.
It was after Ya’alon left office that the head of the National Security Council went to Germany together with representatives of Ya’alon’s successor, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, to negotiate over the subs, and subsequently the security cabinet approved a memorandum of understanding that would replace three old subs by purchasing three new ones.
Unlike the first two investigations, Case 3000 is much more technically complex and therefore harder for the average citizen to grasp. But the military is a sacred cow in Israeli society, and if it is proven that the purchase of equipment to protect them could spark a more serious reaction than shenanigans involving expensive baubles or media wars.
(Maybe) Investigation #4: Case 4000
Since late January, some media outlets in Israel have said there is a fourth case unfolding against the prime minister, although no details are available yet. The substance of such a case – if one actually exists – is still a mystery.