Netanyahu’s Latest Ploy Against the Justice System: Bash the Knesset’s Legal Adviser

Paradoxically, a lifting of Bibi’s immunity from prosecution may help him in the election ■ Meanwhile, the political maneuvering on the left almost makes the right seem like softies

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A new year, and Israel's third election campaign within a year.
A new year, and Israel's third election campaign within a year.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The saga of Eyal Yinon, the Knesset legal adviser, is a typical example of Benjamin Netanyahu’s gangster-style tactics in the twilight of his tenure.

Netanyahu has dragged Israelis through three election campaigns in less than a year to evade or defer the corruption indictments against him, but now has reached a dead end. He knows his immunity is likely to be lifted either before or after the March 2 election. He has run out of ammunition. All that’s left in his armory are tricks, evasions, deflections and obfuscations.

The bodies of the police investigators, the police commissioner, the prosecutors and the attorney general lie in front of us, well, figuratively of course. These officials were taken care of by Netanyahu and his henchmen in the Knesset, the cabinet, the street and the media.

Now it’s Yinon’s turn. His wife, attorney Amit Merari from the State Prosecutor’s Office, took part in some of the consultations in the attorney general’s office before the decision to indict Netanyahu. This marginal matter has taken on monstrous proportions in recent days thanks to the incitement and slander machine on Balfour Street.

They took a contract out on him, it’s as simple as that. In cold blood, in a premeditated move, they sat in the prime minister’s residence and decided to ruin Yinon’s spotless reputation. Character assassination, nothing less. The decision was to accuse him of “suspected criminality,” threaten to petition the High Court of Justice against him, and demand that he stop handling matters regarding Netanyahu.

Yinon issued a perfectly reasonable legal opinion that there’s nothing preventing the Knesset House Committee from meeting to hear Netanyahu’s immunity request before the election – and thus not letting Netanyahu draw the legal proceedings out. The law says that the moment an immunity request is made, it should be discussed as soon as possible. Also, 65 of the Knesset’s 120 members support this step.

The foot soldiers were dispatched. The first was of course Likud’s chief in the Knesset, Miki Zohar – the man who will stop at nothing to please the boss. He was on the front line. Science Minister Ofir Akunis lagged behind, blabbing as usual on matters he has no clue about. The more nonsense he utters, the more he swells until you fear he’ll explode into 1,000 pieces of clichés and hollow slogans.

Then our so-called justice minister jumped on the bandwagon. You have to wonder what kept him. Like a thug, he sent Yinon a threatening letter demanding that he “desist from dealing with these matters.” Amir Ohana has zero authority in Yinon’s affairs. But when the house on Balfour Street is on the line, the spineless peon stands to attention.

Once there was an Israeli band called the Theater Club Quartet. In the ‘50s it had a song called “How the Bedbug Rose to the Top,” which was said to refer to a young ambitious politician who’s no longer with us. Somebody reminded me about that bedbug song this week. As he put it, look how true it is these days too.

Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, May 7, 2017.Credit: Emil Salman

The last patriot

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein is bending over backward not to let the House Committee discuss Netanyahu’s immunity. He’s protecting Netanyahu but mainly thinking about his future. If he chooses the statesmanlike path, he’s history in Likud. His fate will be like that of Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, Michael Eitan, Reuven Rivlin, Limor Livnat and many others.

Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan has set an ultimatum for Edelstein: He must state if he’ll let the committee meet or risk being ousted from the speaker’s chair. Again, 65 MKs could support this: the center-left-Arab bloc and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu.

The ultimatum has been extended to Sunday. Only then is Yinon expected to give another opinion on whether the Knesset speaker may prevent a hearing on Netanyahu’s immunity. The big question is whether this move is worth it for Kahol Lavan – not replacing Edelstein, but lifting Netanyahu’s immunity.

It’s said Netanyahu can do anything without harming his image and power. Sara’s shenanigans, the corruption, the greed and tight-fistedness, the hounding of law enforcement officials, his son Yair’s insane tweets and even the indictments against him – nothing seems to harm him. Even today he and Likud are holding steady in the polls at 31 or 32 Knesset seats.

And even today he feels strong enough to appoint to the cabinet a man suspected of bribery. Ultimately this too will be forgotten. The same goes for the immunity. If it’s discussed and lifted in the current Knesset, it will belong to the past. Paradoxically, lifting his immunity may help Netanyahu in the election because it will no longer be a campaign issue. It will be no more.

Otherwise, Kahol Lavan has a ready-made campaign: If you vote for Netanyahu, you vote for immunity. For many Likud voters, including some who stuck by the party in the last two elections, this may be a vote too far.

Of course, Netanyahu must fight with all the means at his disposal against the lifting of his immunity. He doesn’t want to go to trial. And of course Kahol Lavan must fight as hard as it can to have the committee meet. But if it considers this in a cold, political, vote-counting way, Kahol Lavan’s real interest may be the opposite.

Legend has it that to provoke the Senate he despised, Roman Emperor Caligula planned to appoint his horse a consul. Unlike that delusional, wacky ruler, Netanyahu seems set to appoint a whole stable as ministers.

Loony backbenchers ascendant

The appointment of David Bitan, who is suspected of 12 acts of bribery in the hundreds of thousands of shekels in cash, is another link in the chain of contemptible appointments whose damage to the state is far greater than any good they might do.

Never mind “the state” – the state is for sour leftists – but what do Netanyahu and Likud have to gain by promoting people like Bitan, Ohana and David Amsalem to become ministers? Regardless of any criminal charges, these men are political hazards. The last appointment caused Netanyahu a severe bellyache. He understands the ammunition this provides for Kahol Lavan’s campaign. When asked why he did it, he answers obscurely: “I have no choice.”

Bitan, Ohana and Amsalem were plucked from the very back of the Likud backbench over people in the top 10 on Likud’s September Knesset slate and are not ministers, like Gideon Sa’ar, Nir Barkat and Avi Dichter. At the polls, wouldn’t Likud gain by having these three at the cabinet table?

As far as Sa’ar is concerned, nobody really expects Netanyahu to overcome his fears and suspicions about his main rival for the Likud throne. But Dichter? This loyal crony converted his beliefs for Netanyahu; he went from a paragon of integrity in Ehud Olmert’s government to a cowardly doormat and corruption sanitizer in Netanyahu’s service.

At midday Sunday, right after the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu invited the candidates for promotion to his office – Bitan who received the Agriculture Ministry, Tzipi Hotovely, who was catapulted from deputy foreign minister to Diaspora affairs minister (though this is a reasonable appointment) and Yifat Shasha-Biton, who was asked to give the housing portfolio to Shas’ Yitzhak Cohen and move to the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry.

Shasha-Biton’s is a totally incomprehensible appointment. The lady is a refugee of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, which merged into Likud after the September election. As if Kulanu were still a 10-Knesset-seat party that the government’s fate depends on, its three MKs are still in charge of three economic portfolios: finance, economy and, with Shasha-Biton’s move, not housing but labor, social affairs and social services.

It’s a mystery, a complete enigma. Does Kahlon, who isn’t even on Likud’s ticket five days before the slates have to be submitted, have some secret leverage over Netanyahu?

Back to Sunday. At the entrance to the prime minister’s office the dignitaries came and went. Among them were United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev, who showed up to collect compensation for the extra portfolio Shas received. After they left satisfied, Likud ministers Yariv Levin and Zeev Elkin entered to discuss the most important issue: immunity. While they were talking, Deputy Defense Minister Dichter came in through the glass door. He was just passing by and decided to pop in. Maybe a ministerial crumb had fallen on the floor.

It was crowded outside the double wooden door leading to the prime minister’s room, like a line for flu vaccinations. Those who were inoculated came out pleased. But alas, at some stage the vaccinations ran out; many were disappointed and had to leave without that shot in the arm.

Power politics on the left

At the beginning of the week, Amir Peretz met supporters recommending an electoral alliance between Labor-Gesher and Democratic Union, which is largely the Meretz party, to the left of Labor. They tried to persuade him to stop being so obstinate. If you lose Knesset seats they’ll go to Kahol Lavan, they said. The bloc won’t be harmed.

Peretz lost his patience. You don’t understand anything, he nearly shouted. I have a poll that if we unite we’ll lose two Knesset seats far to the right, one to Naftali Bennett’s Hayamin Hehadash and one to Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu.

Several eyebrows were raised, to say the least. "I won’t go with Meretz! Period," Peretz shouted, a person at the meeting said.

Two days later, in his growing despair, he visited the Channel 12 News studios and in his pompous manner pulled a raggedy rabbit out of his sleeve: a merger of the whole center-left camp. The motive was transparent: deflect the burning fire from him to Gantz.

So lame, so pathetic was this ruse that it didn’t hold for 24 hours. The “outline to replace Netanyahu,” as his cronies put it, came back to him like a missile with its guiding system gone haywire. Kahol Lavan will only succeed if it draws votes from the right-wing camp, as every child knows.

What makes Peretz continue to make a fool of himself? Regardless of any reality check, he and Gesher chief Orli Levi-Abekasis have got it in their heads that in September they’ll take two Knesset seats from the right. The results at hundreds of polling stations in the country’s outskirts show the opposite: the “royal couple,” as they’re called in Labor, gained fewer votes than Labor did in April when Avi Gabbay was chairman.

“It doesn’t matter what the checks say,” Peretz tells his many critics. “I walk in the street and feel the people.”

On Wednesday, after appearing on Channel 12 News, Peretz met with Gantz, who didn’t like Peretz’s way of making headlines before getting down to the basics. Their conversation wasn’t an easy one, but Gantz had a carrot. “I want you to unite” – with Meretz – “and I’m willing to do a lot for that to happen,” he told Peretz. “Tell me what you want me to do, what you want me to say.”

Peretz, a senior Kahol Lavan source said, hunkered down. He wouldn’t hear about merging with Meretz, only of uniting the parties of the whole “bloc to replace Netanyahu.”

Replacing Netanyahu is important, a source in Kahol Lavan told me. “Before that, I wish we could replace Peretz.”

Unless something unexpected happens in the next five days, Democratic Union’s Stav Shaffir will find herself out of the Knesset. Such a cooling-off period from parliament will only do her good, as would some soul-searching.

Over years she has managed to make the people in every movement or party she was in sick of her. It started during the social protests of the summer of 2011, and it continued in Labor, where no one shed a tear when she jumped ship to Democratic Union. Now Meretz has had enough of her as well. This week, to signal to Shaffir that her time was up, Meretz chief Nitzan Horowitz signed a cooperation agreement with Yair Golan, the retired major general who’s also in Democratic Union.

First Golan was in Ehud Barak’s Democratic Israel, and now he’s in Democratic Choice within Democratic Union. Confusing? Here’s a possible explanation. One person still feels obligated to Shaffir. It’s  Barak. Together they forged Democratic Union. Barak is now out of politics, but on the eve of parting from Golan, Barak asked him to condition his rejoining of Meretz on renewing the agreement with Shaffir. Golan refused and the two parted as friends. Barak returned to his global business affairs.

As Golan told me, “There was a threat hovering in the air but not directly from Ehud. I ignored it and the threat disappeared. You can’t take these things seriously.”

So Meretz has looked after Golan and he has kept his third place on the ticket, with Tamar Zandberg, not Shaffir, between him and Horowitz. But it doesn’t really matter. The electoral threshold is four Knesset seats. They’re either all in or all out.

Zandberg, who like the rest of her colleagues wanted to get rid of Shaffir, played a trick. A few weeks ago she pretended to be challenging Horowitz for the party leadership again. The hinted condition was that she’d withdraw if she was awarded the second slot. Horowitz was happy to comply. He’s also had enough of Shaffir.

So all’s well that ends well, but not really. The party pretending to encourage a “Jewish-Arab partnership” again threw Esawi Freige under the bus; that is, to fifth place. The former MK naively believed that Zandberg’s ultimatum to Horowitz would return him to the fourth slot. He thought they were together. When he discovered, to his astonishment, at this week’s meeting of Meretz MKs that he doesn’t have a decent chance of getting into the Knesset this time either, he took it hard. Very hard.

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