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The Two Faces of Benjamin Netanyahu
Israel has, for a long time, been a pivotal point of both power and controversy in the Middle East. A technological giant that has added significantly to the world’s advancement in communications, medicine, defense, agriculture, and technology. Israel’s decades-long efforts to achieve some kind of finality with the so-called peace process has left this tiny country in international limbo. Nevertheless, its achievements have been monumental for a country with a population of only nine million people, slightly more than the state of New Jersey.
But for many months, Israel has been without a formal government and there has been an historical stale mate in its efforts to return to business-as-usual. And on Thursday, November 21st, the situation got even more complicated.
On that day, the Attorney General of Israel announced his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges in three separate cases: Case 1000, Case 2000, and Case 4000. And the charges are severe: fraud, bribery, and breach of trust.
Netanyahu’s situation was already complicated. After two sequential elections in less than a year, Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition government so that the business of government in Israel could move forward. But after two serious attempts, he was unable to do so. And so was his opposition, the leader of the Blue and White party, Benny Gantz. Thursday’s announcement made things much worse, because the charges are serious, and the complications that they create are a good reason for concern on the part of the Israeli people.
In the first case, Case 1000, as it is called by the Israeli Police Department, Netanyahu was charged with fraud and breach of trust, over the hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of gifts that he received from billionaires Arnon Milchan and James Packer.
According to the indictment, Netanyahu received cartons of expensive cigars, cases of pink champagne, and expensive jewelry. According to the indictment, “the favors from Milchan and Packer . . . were given to defendant Netanyahu and his wife on a continuous basis, in response to requests and even demands . . . . The favors reached a value of roughly $200,000.
Under Israeli law, this is considered to be fraud and breach of trust, which is defined as the receipt of precious gifts by public officials in return for favors. In this situation, the Prime Minister could provide ‘favors’ by virtue as his position. In this case, Netanyahu was able to assist them in numerous ways. For example, between 2013 and 2014, “defendant Netanyahu interacted with US government officials to get Milchan a US visa.”
Case 2000 was a similar case, in which a series of meetings took place between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Arnon (Noni) Moses, the owner and publisher of one of Israel’s largest newspapers, Yedioth Ahronoth. In these meetings, they allegedly discussed a bribe. Moses was asked to flip the coverage of his paper from anti-Netanyahu to pro-Netanyahu positions in return for the Prime Minister promising to diminish the circulation of its main competitor, Israel Hayom (Israel Today).
This is an astonishing arrangement, since Yediot Aharonot was a left-leaning publication (anti-Netanyahu) while Israel Today, which is published by Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Edelman, is right-leaning, and was a strong supporter of Netanyahu.
Mandelblit wrote in the indictment that “defendant Netanyahu performed acts of breach of trust that substantially violate moral conduct and the public’s trust . . . Defendant Netanyahu planted with defendant Moses the impression that there was a real possibility that he – the Israeli prime minister – would accept a bribe. In this, defendant Netanyahu also conveyed that bribery offers are a legitimate tool that can be used to promote the mutual interests of senior elected officials and businessmen, and that there is nothing wrong in bribery transactions . . . .” No agreement was ever reached, and although the deal was never executed, the conversations continued for several years.
The biggest and most significant of the cases, Case 4000, also known as the Bezeq Affair, was all about bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. The crimes cited in this case centered around the idea that Netanyahu would provide advanced regulatory benefits to Shaul Elovitch, the owner of the Israeli communications giant Bezeq and the online Walla news. In exchange for favorable coverage on the Walla website that would attack opponents from both the left and the right, Netanyahu allegedly promised to give Elovitch legal benefits worth more than $250 million.
The draft indictment states, “Defendant Netanyahu carried out various actions in favor of Defendant Elovitch in exchange for the benefits he received from the Elovitch family in the form of coverage, while acting in a partial manner and putting himself in a conflict of interests between his public duties and his private affairs, in manner that was out of the ordinary.”
In his announcement on Thursday, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said, ”To obey the law is not a choice. It is not a matter of politics. It is a duty that everyone must obey.”
This is not a story that is going to have a simple conclusion. The Attorney General cannot even file the indictment until there is a sitting Knesset, and that will not happen until a new government is formed. But in two successive elections that took place in 2019, no one – not Netanyahu and not his strongest opponent, Benny Gantz – were able to put together a coalition of 61 candidates from various parties that is necessary to form a government.
Netanyahu the Statesman
For several decades, Netanyahu has been a moving force in Israel’s growing international presence. And as Prime Minister, he has achieved dramatic growth in Israel’s international posture. The strengthening of the relationship between Israel and the U.S. – with the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Embassy’s move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and the recognition that the cities and towns in the West Bank may not be illegal – all of these were major achievements for Israel. But there was more. Because largely through the efforts of Netanyahu and with the support of the U.S., Israel has been recognized – formally and informally – by several Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. That has never happened before and it is a huge achievement!
Who is the Other Bibi Netanyahu?
As a statesman, Netanyahu has excelled in putting Israel’s security and well-being on the international stage, up front. But politically, at home, Netanyahu has been divisive. Personally, he is arrogant and seems to believe that he is the only person who can provide the leadership that Israel needs. Part of the reason he was unable to put together a coalition seems to have been that he was inflexible, and unable to compromise with the very people with whom he could have succeeded.
And with all the strength that he brings to the historical integrity of Israel’s rightful place in the world, on a personal level, he seems to feel that he is entitled to bend the rules – and even break the laws – when it’s to his benefit. The stories about the demands that he has made on his wealthy supporters are legion. And they are not secret. He has offended many people who could have otherwise supported him.
And his wife, Sara, is even worse. She has been accused of mistreating – even abusing – her household staff, which, of course, she has denied. She has been reported to have terrible screaming fits, and tries to impose undue influence on her husband, the Prime Minister.
Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, have been avid Netanyahu supporters, and have supported him through their newspaper Israel Hayom, which he finances and publishes. They were interviewed by police as a part of their investigation. During the interview, they revealed some disheartening experiences of their own.
Sheldon Adelson is reported to have said about Sara Netanyahu, “She’s completely crazy. She was compulsive about photos of herself and how she looked …. She would tell my wife that if Iran attacked [Israel] it would be her fault … because we didn’t publish good pictures of her.”
Sheldon’s wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, also went on to tell police how she chooses the people who work with her prime minister husband. ‘She chooses the workers, the people around him, the staff, his secretary. Then she knows everything that goes on,’ she said. When asked if Sara Netanyahu influences governmental appointments, Adelson said, ‘Those too, I believe.’
She told police that Sara Netanyahu also asked her for expensive jewelry.
Miriam Adelson: Sara “once showed me a necklace. Then told me ‘Arnon bought me this from ‘Tiffanys”, or something like that. She implied that she was happy when…”
Investigator: “How did she imply it?”
Miriam Adelson: [She said] “You’re a billionaire and somebody shows you a watch and says, look at this Rolex watch, someone got it for me, doesn’t that imply you also want one?“ I said I have a casino license and that I can’t do these kinds of things.”
The Parallel Between the Political Situation in U.S. and Israel
As Prime Minister, Netanyahu has accomplished a great deal on behalf of Israel on the world stage. He has developed strong ties with both President Trump and Russia’s President Putin. He has also broken historical barriers to relations with Arab nations.
And the parallels between the two countries is striking. Both leaders are going through legal persecution. In the U.S. the Democrats are trying to impeach President Trump and remove him from office. In Israel, the judiciary is doing the same. But there is a big difference. In Israel, the ‘crimes’ have been clearly defined, and an indictment has been drawn up. In the U.S., the Democrats are still trying to figure out a crime that they can pin on the President and use to justify impeachment – so far, without success.
So What Is Most Likely To Happen Next?
No one expected that Netanyahu would step down, and he didn’t. On the contrary, after the announcement from the Attorney General, he made an astonishing statement in which he cast himself as the victim and instead of taking any responsibility, attacked the Attorney General and called for an investigation of the investigators.
Under Israeli law, a sitting Prime Minister does not have to resign until he is convicted, and even then he has the right to appeal and stay in office until that is resolved, one way or the other. And all of this can take years. But even before any of this begins, a formal indictment cannot even occur until there is a new Knesset, which won’t happen until a new government is formed.
If a new election is required, which will make the third election in the last year, and a party is able to put a new government together, then an indictment can be filed and the process can move forward. In any case, a conviction could still take years. And in the meantime, Netanyahu has the legal right to request parliamentary immunity, except that for now, there is no parliament.
This is clearly beyond anything the country’s founders anticipated, and Israel’s legal system is negotiating new and perilous territory.
Israel’s Judicial System is a Point of Pride
There is hardly any democracy in the world that can take as much pride in their independent law enforcement institutions as Israel can. In Israel, the systems are clearly in place that have both the authority and the courage to indict a sitting Prime Minister, even the most dominant politician in the country. Netanyahu, who has been in office for a decade, is also the longest serving Prime Minister in the country’s 71 year history. That even he is subject to the country’s laws and has not been able to hide under the mantle of immunity because of his position, is impressive.
But the situation is one that is not covered by current laws, and new laws have to be created for a situation such as this. How will Israel’s Supreme Court rule on a Prime Minister serving while under indictment? And how will the public respond to these new events?
When he spoke on Thursday, in response to the draft indictment, Netanyahu began his speech:
“I would give my life for the State of Israel. … this is a very tough day for me and I know it’s a very tough day for everybody who supports me. …. You have to be blind not to see that something wrong is happening here. “
He called the indictment suspicious and highly political “Timing of announcement shows political bias.” He said, “I want to see a free market, not just in the economy, but in opinions.” And then he said, “This is a a filthy process. It is already clear that the public lost its trust in the police and the Attorney General.” And then he accused the Attorney General, an old friend and ally, but now an enemy, of being influenced by politics. And he accused his accusers of corruption.
How Will This End? What Will Happen Next?
In his response to the indictment, Netanyahu has attacked the institutions of justice that underlie the rule of law in Israel. He is fighting for his own political life on the one hand, and the policies that he has championed over the tenure of his Prime Ministership that have led to the enhancement of Israel’s strength and influence in the free world. Israel’s role in the affairs of the Middle East is significant and Prime Minister Netanyahu has been the driver of this influence.
But the wheels of justice in Israel have begun to turn. Israel has faced danger many times before. But it was mostly at the hands of its enemies. Today, Israel faces a danger from within its own ranks. A self-promoting Prime Minister who may have broken the law many times over, a public tired of the politics that are so toxic that the government has almost come to a standstill, and a real enemy that is eager to see them all gone.
The history of the Jewish people in what is now Israel is thousands of years long. Israel will eventually sort this out. But how much time and money and resources will be wasted in the process? We can only hope that wiser heads will prevail and the nasty side of politics will be replaced by common sense and honor.
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