It Was a Very Bad Week for the Netanyahu Family. It Just Got Catastrophically Worse

What was so far only implied has now become official: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is suspected of bribery ■ Netanyahu's former chief of staff Ari Harow kept evidence for a rainy day; his state's witness deal is a game changer

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration: Netanyahu and his son, who is holding up a middle finger, hide behind a mound of poop. Police lead Sara Netanyahu and Ari Harow away. David Bitan holds up a sign that says 'There'll be nothing because there is nothing.'
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

About half a year ago, as his legal situation worsened, Ari Harow, Benjamin Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, told friends that he might be left with no choice other than to turn state’s witness in two cases involving the prime minister, in order to save his skin. That option simmered for a long time on a low burner.

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In the meantime, Harow himself has continued to be the target of an ongoing investigation for alleged improprieties in the sale of a consulting firm he owned. But the real drama was taking place in the parallel channels of the various Netanyahu affairs. The investigations into the cases of acceptance of valuable gifts, of conversations with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes and of the German submarine deal went on apace, unrelentingly, literally day and night. The investigators accumulated – and are continuing to accumulate – vast amounts of evidence from hundreds of people, as well as from documents and recordings. The public has seen only the trailer; the police and attorneys from the prosecutor’s office have already seen the whole movie, or almost all of it, and are appalled by what they’ve seen. The Netanyahu cases have been laid out before them, inside and out, with all their innards exposed, like a huge tuna brought up from the depths of the sea and sliced up by a trained hand. The smell, too, reminds them of a dead fish.

The turning point, a source close to the investigations said this week, occurred when State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan crossed the lines. A few months ago, after previously displaying a skeptical, passive posture, Nitzan joined the active camp of Israel Police investigators and the supervising prosecutor for cases 1000 and 2000, Liat Ben Ari Sheweky. Now, the source says, he’s “on the same page” as them.

The picture that has emerged, as of now, is that the police, the supervising attorney and the state prosecutor and his staff are working in complete coordination, as one. The target: Netanyahu. The means: efforts to bore inside by means of state’s witnesses who have come from the prime minister’s inner circle. That’s the method, and it was also employed in the submarine case, when the middleman in the affair, Michael Ganor, turned state’s witness. (The case involves alleged improprieties surrounding the billion-plus-dollar sale to Israel of submarines by German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp, which Ganor represented in Israel.)

About a year ago, in mid-July 2016, after the police leaked the information that a solid evidentiary basis was emerging in the Harow investigation, I wrote that the possibility of a state’s witness being recruited from among the prime minister’s confidants could not be ruled out. That information came from sources close to the investigation – which shows that already then, investigators were aiming for the top.

If signed, the agreement being worked out now with Harow will create an earthquake in the investigation. For about a decade, on and off, the retiring, cultivated Harow, who sports a bashful smile and avoids ego battles, touched the money. The big money hidden from the eye, whose movements aren’t always recorded. He was part of the inner circle, close up and personal, along with attorney David Shimron, after the wife and sons of the premier.

The stomach-turning conversations the prime minister had with Mozes – about ways to neuter Israel Hayom, the Netanyahu mouthpiece, in return for favorable coverage of the prime minister in Yedioth Ahronoth – were discussed, were known in real-time to Harow, who recorded them, as well as to Shimron, who recommended that they be recorded, according to Netanyahu himself. It’s unlikely that anyone else knew about the conversations until the recordings were seized from Harow by chance, during a police search of his home in connection with their investigation of his alleged business misdeeds.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Ari Harow, 2008.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

Harow is a veritable treasure chest of information, one that could swiftly morph into a Pandora’s box. He did not leave his chief-of-staff post harboring feelings of revenge for Netanyahu; he found himself caught up in this whirligig by chance. But the fact is, he kept the tapes and did not destroy them. And that wasn’t because he wasn’t aware of their volatility or because he forgot about their existence: He kept them for a rainy day.

After the episode involving former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s private secretary, Shula Zaken, and her diaries, and now Harow and his recordings – every senior politician, whose deepest secrets are usually revealed to one confidant only, someone who’s been as close as his shadow for years, has to ask himself a blood-chilling question: Will the day come on which the loyal friend, my “safe deposit box,” will open up and turn against me? Must we reach the disturbing but unavoidable conclusion – which every minister and even MK and mayor and high-rolling businessman is undoubtedly asking himself – that we can’t trust anyone anymore?

‘Total freak-out’

The intensity of the shock that was felt in the Prime Minister’s Residence, on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, following the reports Tuesday evening that Harow was on his way to turning state’s witness (after an item appeared the previous day on the Walla News site), can be gauged by the silence that followed. Almost 24 hours passed – an eternity in terms of Netanyahu’s usual media behavior – before the standard response was issued: “There will be nothing because there is nothing.”

If the agreement with Harow is signed and it really does help nail Netanyahu in Cases 1000 and 2000 – involving, respectively, alleged illegal receipt of valuable gifts from business figures, and the conversations with Mozes – then it’s all over. Except perhaps for the shouting. And this is particularly true if Harow provides information on other matters, whether they are more or less serious.

This is possibly the first week of the rest of Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister. What remains are only humiliation, being dragged into additional investigations, and the nasty leaks. The vultures are already gathering above.

This has undoubtedly been one of the hardest weeks for Netanyahu. It is reminiscent of the decline of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was haunted by bad news at a dizzying pace.

The Netanyahus in 2016.Credit: Kobi Gideon, GPO

Netanyahu suffered blow after blow: On Tuesday there were reports of a state's witness agreement with someone the Netanyahus consider a close friend, if not a son; on Wednesday, Sara Netanyahu was questioned over the misuse of funds allocated to the prime minister’s residence; and on Thursday the police's formal request to the court showed that the prime minister is suspected of the following: Bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Bribery, everyone knows, is the mother of all offences in public service. Whoever is convicted on that count goes to jail, for years.

Up until Thursday night, the word "bribe" was uttered carefully by reporters, with caveats, with a question mark. That stage is behind us. From now on it's here, on the table. Netanyahu is an acting prime minister who is suspected of taking a bribe. The political arena will also soon begin to absorb this development.

When we look back on this period, we’ll recall also the dear son Yair, who is the crown prince as far as Sara’s concerned.

The series of ugly remarks he posted this week against the media, the Molad Center for Jewish Democracy and the New Israel Fund (the “Fund for Israel’s Destruction,” he called it), as well as against Ariel Olmert, son of the former prime minister (Ariel retaliated with a style and elegance that are foreign to the current residents of Balfour Street) – all this attests like a thousand witnesses to the mood in the Netanyahu family. A “total freak-out,” according to someone in the know.

Netanyahu, Jr., isn’t even smart or sophisticated enough to hide the panic and the consternation. The feeling among his family is that the shit has hit the fan (we wouldn’t have resorted to that malodorous imagery were it not for the fact that the media this week dealt with Yair’s failure to scoop the family dog’s poop).

It’s no coincidence that the screws of the smarmy prince, who is so very different from his cordial, pleasant and modest brother, have come loose just now. The Ari Harow affair is one reason. The second is the additional questioning of Mother Sara on Wednesday, in the case of alleged misuse of funds allocated to the Prime Minister’s Residence. The latest interrogation dealt with leftovers, ahead of the decision about whether to indict her. Everything is falling apart there.

To this day, the prime minister hasn’t been so much as scratched, still less judged by the public, by all the investigations. The corruption, the decadence, the swinishness, life at the expense of others – all have been embodied in Netanyahu since his first term, which engendered the Amedi affair, involving a house mover, and an earlier generation of gifts. None of it seems to stick to him.

After Netanyahu has been in office for eight consecutive years, his voters in Likud find it hard to imagine a future without him. He hammers into their consciousness that nothing will come of nothing, that it’s all a left-wing-media conspiracy, that he’s being persecuted, that he’s a victim, a martyr. And they assume that indeed, one way or another, nothing will come of it. That you don’t topple a prime minister just because of a few boxes of expensive cigars and some bottles of champagne. That Case 2000? It’s all talk, and Bibi the actor simply pulled the wool over Mozes’ eyes. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit would not dare become the first A-G in Israel’s history to indict a serving prime minister. And Netanyahu is so strong and so wily and so much of a cat with nine lives that he’ll always land on his feet and will survive even this.

But Ari Harow as a state’s witness is a game-changer. And who knows? Maybe he won’t be the last of the inner sanctum who will sign a deal of some kind. According to the police, Netanyahu is up to his neck in trouble. His contrarian strategy may have fallen on receptive ears among his fans in Israel Hayom, but the investigators have been less impressed.

Maybe he should have cut his losses early, and engineered an exit at an appropriate time and offered the investigators “a great deal,” in the words of his pal in Washington: resignation in return for termination of the investigations, incorporation of all the charges into a single case and a mild punishment. But he appears to have missed that boat. What remains for him to do in the months ahead other than to flail about as the walls close in? It’s scary to think what this man and his family are capable of inflicting on the country in an attempt to head off the flames that are approaching their residence.

The general working assumption – that none of his political partners wants an early election – remains intact. At least not until the circumstances change. What would such a change involve? A police recommendation to indict the premier? Not necessarily. A decision by the attorney general, subject to a hearing? That’s still half a year off, at least.

MK Yehudah Glick with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Credit: Emil Salman

The time has come for Netanyahu to turn to his community of supporters, to get them to man the barricades. An initial effort will be made this Saturday evening, in Petah Tikva. Coalition Whip MK David Bitan (Likud) is organizing a demonstration in support of the prime minister, opposite the weekly demonstration of those protesting the attorney general’s foot-dragging in his handling of the criminal suspicions against Netanyahu. Likud branches have been asked to urge their people to turn out.

Henceforth, particularly brutal pressure will be exerted on Likud ministers and MKs to back up, strengthen and support their leader, who is contemptuous of them openly and – mainly – behind their backs. The softer and more pliant their backbone, the more they will condemn themselves to going down as a sad joke for future generations, as we approach the last stretch in the descent of the slippery slope.

Likud activist Lior Harari, the No. 1 fan of Sara Netanyahu, who has a full-size cardboard representation of her in his home, wrote in a post to party members, “We must not be fewer than 1,000” at the demonstration (in the wake of the head count conducted by the right-wing paper Makor Rishon, which turned up 920 participants in the ongoing weekly demonstration against the attorney general’s dawdling).

“It’s money time!!!!” Harari ends his post. A timely warning – the urgency is palpable – but a poor choice of words, in the light of the agreement being worked out with Netanyahu’s money man.

Not what we thought

The initiative by Habayit Hayehudi leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennett to enact the so-called “little Norwegian law” first surfaced two years ago. Its gist, based on a Scandinavian model, is that a certain number of ministers and/or deputy ministers would be allowed to resign from the Knesset and thus enable the next person on their party’s list to become a member of the legislature.

But the idea, which gained momentum in the coalition parties, unnerved Netanyahu. He was concerned that Yehuda Glick, whom the public identities with the Temple Mount and who was No. 33 on the Likud Knesset slate in the last elections – in which the party won 30 seats – would quickly find himself in the plenum (which actually happened, though for other reasons, less than a year later).

In October 2015, this column reported Netanyahu’s objections to the redheaded MK. The spirit of what I wrote was empathetic to the prime minister’s concerns. “Glick is another example of the margins becoming the center, the zany and the extreme becoming the mainstream, the outcast and the rejected undergoing rehabilitation,” I noted.

The time has come to express contrition. Those remarks did an injustice to Glick. In his year-plus in the Knesset, he, along with fellow party member MK Benny Begin, has shown himself to be a beacon of integrity, liberalism and morality, and in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, to be truly courageous.

He sided with investigative journalist Ilana Dayan in the wake of a scurrilous blast against her from the Prime Minister’s Bureau; condemned the public lynch perpetrated against the feminist Women of the Wall group; opposed the muezzin law, which was born in sin – namely, out of the desire of the residents of a certain mansion in Caesarea (the “apartment,” as Netanyahu calls it) to enjoy their Sabbath sleep undisturbed; and he spoke out against Elor Aazria (the “Hebron shooter”) a number of times.

His is a lone, lucid, moral voice. A very different voice from the deafening noise of a collective, populist and sycophantic demand by Likud members to give immediate amnesty to a person who shot a dying man in cold blood – “like in a shooting range,” as one of the judges put it – and neither confessed, expressed remorse or asked for forgiveness. This week, too, after a military appeals court left Azaria’s conviction and original sentence intact, Glick described the soldier’s behavior as “shocking.”

“I believe it’s incumbent upon us to be moral,” he explained. “The terrorist deserves to die, but once the event is over, a court must deal with him, no one else. No one appointed us to be prosecutor, judge and implementer.”

But in the current dialogue, a statement like that can liquidate you politically, I put it to him. I asked whether he’d decided consciously that this would be his first and last Knesset term.

“If the voters want me, they’re welcome. If not, it’s not so terrible,” he replied, not fearful in the least.

Don’t you find it odd, I asked him, that no other Likud MK or minister spoke in a similar vein about Azaria?

“Bogie [former defense minister Moshe] Ya’alon thought so,” said Glick.

And look where Ya’alon is now, I said, reminding him of the obvious.

“Yes,” he sighed gloomily, “and look where Ya’alon is today.”

By the way, Glick entered the Knesset on May 23, 2016, in place of Ya’alon, who resigned from the House after being removed as defense minister. Netanyahu’s fears about him proved groundless. In the light of the immense damage he caused in Israeli-Jordanian relations last week, in his display of hugs and admiration for the security guard in the Israeli embassy in Amman who killed two people in the course of an attempt to stab him, it’s actually Glick who has to see to regional stability. It’s not he who is “on the margins,” the “extremist” or the “zany” one.

La-la land

Last Wednesday, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) stood at the Knesset podium and voiced his regular lament about the Temple Mount, which he (along with all MKs and ministers) is enjoined to keep away from by order of the prime minister. The subject of the debate was legislation dealing with ways to reduce the danger of being infected by rabies.

Ariel turned to the closest entity to the prime minister, MK David Bitan. “Mr. Coalition Whip, I ask you to ensure that we will be able to visit the Temple Mount,” Ariel urged.

Bitan looked amused. “There’s Mini-Israel, do you know it?” he replied to Ariel, referring to a well-known tourist attraction, outside Jerusalem, at Latrun. “You can go up to the Temple Mount there.”

Ariel’s jaw dropped. He left the rostrum, dumbfounded. There’s no doubt, only Bitan can do it. Critical as we may be of the ultra-free style of speech of the senior MK in the House, it has to be admitted that Bitan’s got it.

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