Analysis |

Vile Attack on Journalist Shows: When Trump Goes Low, Netanyahu Goes Even Lower

And if you think the prime minister has reached rock bottom, early April 9 elections guarantee that you ain’t seen nothing yet

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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US President Donald Trump (L) shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Who is claiming that investigations against him are a “witch hunt"? Whose loyal aide said legal authorities are trying to frame the people’s choice and if they succeed “millions of people won’t accept it"? Who turned a cabinet appointment into a reality show by proclaiming that he would announce it “by midnight”? Who attacked a reproving reporter by dredging up totally unrelated 17-year-old charges against his brother?

Your immediate reply to all of the above might be Donald Trump and/or Rudy Giuliani and/or Kellyanne Conway, which would be both right and wrong. Wrong, because the correct answer is Benjamin Netanyahu. Right, because Netanyahu seems to be taking his cue from Trump.

If Trump goes low, Netanyahu increasingly seems as if he’s trying to go even lower. Given that new elections have just been called for April 9, it is quite likely that rock bottom still awaits him.

>> Surrounded on all sides: Netanyahu's indictment for bribery is now inevitable | Analysis ■ A nightmare on Balfour Street | Opinion

Netanyahu’s latest target is Maariv’s veteran columnist Ben Caspit, who has written two unauthorized biographies of the prime minister and has repeatedly uncovered alleged malfeasance by Netanyahu and his wife Sara as well as improper conduct of his son Yair.

Last year, Netanyahu’s lawyers extracted a public apology and 50 thousand shekels ($13,250) from Caspit, who was forced to retract a story alleging that Sara Netanyahu had ordered the sacking of the caretaker of the prime minister’s official residence.

This week, Netanyahu announced that he would sue Caspit again for libel, this time for his allegation that the prime minister had arranged an inflated pension for the Knesset’s legal adviser, whose wife happens to be a deputy attorney general who is privy to the deliberations on Netanyahu’s possible indictment on charges of corruption.

The suit by the increasingly litigious Netanyahu would not have drawn much attention were it not for the vicious, Trump-style social media posts that accompanied it. “Caspit’s sick obsessiveness will once again cost him dearly,” the prime minister wrote on Twitter. “If Caspit cared a little more for his own family instead of hounding mine, we might be spared such regrettable incidents.” Here, Netanyahu attached a Haaretz newspaper clipping from 2001, which reported the arrest of Caspit’s brother Uri on suspicion of using forged credit cards and checkbooks.

Netanyahu’s grudges against the media aren’t new. He has harbored them since his first term in office over two decades ago. Former Jerusalem Post editor Steve Linde asserted in 2012, to the prime minister’s denial, that Netanyahu labeled both Haaretz and the New York Times as “Israel’s worst enemies," a precursor to Trump’s refrain about the media as “enemies of the people.”

But Netanyahu’s attacks on the press, sometimes accompanied by civil suits for libel, have escalated and proliferated in the wake of his own legal entanglements and, apparently, Trump’s inspiration. In recent months, he has repeatedly portrayed journalists as agents of a treacherous left who are conducting a “witch hunt” against him: They are trying to “lynch” him, Netanyahu claims, in order to carry out an undemocratic “putsch.” And he has gleefully adopted and applied Trump’s “fake news” label to any and all reports of his alleged wrongdoing as well as opinion columns criticizing his policies.

Netanyahu’s reactions to reports about his wife Sara are particularly aggressive and blunt. Two years ago, in response to a report on Israel’s premier investigative news show Uvda about his wife’s intervention in senior appointments and sensitive security deliberations, Netanyahu published a long-winded attack on Ilana Dayan, one of Israel’s most widely respected journalists.

He demanded that Dayan read out his entire reaction, which labeled her “an extreme leftist," accused her of “persecuting” IDF soldiers and convicted her for what, in Netanyahu’s book, is the ultimate cardinal sin: Connections to the New Israel Fund.

A year ago, in response to news reports that the police would recommend that Netanyahu be indicted for corruption in the first of four investigations in which he was involved, Netanyahu stooped even lower.

He mocked the thick eyebrows of Channel 2 journalist Moshe Nussbaum, who had reported on the impending police report, in what seemed like a clear imitation of Trump’s infamous mimicry of disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski in November 2015. Netanyahu was probably unaware that Nussbaum’s facial features were the result of injuries he sustained while on army service during the first intifada. He later called Nussbaum to apologize, though he never publically retracted the attack.

But dredging up the questionable past of a reporter’s brother, and implicitly threatening “lyin’ Ben Caspit”, as he dubbed him, with continued attacks on his family, was a new low, even for Netanyahu. The attack garnered widespread condemnation by Israeli journalists, politicians in the opposition and even rare, albeit mildly worded rebukes by his own party stalwarts, who said the attack on Caspit was unworthy.

The vicious attack on Caspit is seen by many as an indication of Netanyahu’s increasing distress in the wake of reports that the State Attorney’s office had adopted police reports and is recommending that Netanyahu be charged with two separate counts of bribery.

The first is for so-called “Case 2000”, in which Netanyahu is alleged to have connived with Yedioth Ahronot publisher Noni Mozes to get Sheldon Adelson to refrain from publishing a weekend edition of his newspaper Israel Hayom, Yedioth’s main rival, in exchange for favorable coverage.

The second indictment for bribery concerns a similar deal with Shaul Elovich, owner of the Bezeq communications conglomerate, who also promised Netanyahu favorable coverage in exchange for regulatory relief estimated to be worth in excess of a billions shekels.

On the original so-called “gifts case”, dubbed “Case 1000”, which revolves around gifts given to Netanyahu by Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and others – which was the catalyst for the prime minister’s attack on Nussbaum – the state attorneys are of the view that Netanyahu should be charged with breach of trust, a lesser offense than outright bribery.

The recommendations now await a final decision by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit on whether or not to indict, but the legal noose that appears to be tightening around Netanyahu’s neck and the unsavory prospect that the attorney general will publish his findings a month or two before the expected early elections have incensed the prime minister and possibly terrified him.

His attacks on the “biased” police, with its “predetermined findings” and its “delusionary” outgoing chief, Roni Elsheikh, which sounded like an exact copy of Trump’s onslaughts against Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the FBI, no longer suffice.

In what is probably a trial balloon floated by Netanyahu to gauge the public’s reaction, his confidante and loyalist Dudi Amsalem, leader of the coalition in the Knesset, alleged this week that Netanyahu is “being framed” and that “millions of people won’t accept it." Trump-sycophant Rudy Giuliani preceded Amsalem, of course, when he said in August that “the American people would revolt” if Trump were to be impeached.

Many Israeli pundits believe, that rather than Trump, it is actually Netanyahu's son Yair who is persuading him to lose his inhibitions in lashing out against his critics. The younger Netanyahu, who was temporarily banned from Facebook earlier this month for calling for forced immigration of Palestinians, often seems to play Mr. Hyde to his father’s Mr. Jekyll.

In addition to publishing savage attacks on the New Israel Fund and copying anti-Semitic memes on George Soros, it is the younger Netanyahu who labeled Elsheikh “a cross between Tony Soprano and the Rain Man," which was also seen as disparagement of the disabled.

So it could have been Yair who persuaded his father this week to tease anxious wannabe Likud ministers by publishing a tweet promising to announce his choice for the vacant immigrant absorption portfolio “by midnight."

But Netanyahu may have simply been playing copycat once again to one of Trump’s staple gambits, which he has repeatedly deployed to build tension before crucial appointments, including that of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

The prank turned out to be somewhat of an anti-climax, however, because Netanyahu didn’t appoint a new minister in the end but gave the portfolio to the current Tourism Minister Yariv Levin.

Whatever internal turmoil was generated by Levin’s appointment, however, was soon swept away by the decision to hold new elections on April 9. Given Netanyahu’s escalating rhetoric against his rivals and the fact that the elections might determine not only the future of his career but whether he will go to jail or not, one thing is sure: If you think the prime minister has sunk as low as he can, think again: You ain’t seen nothing yet.

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