Friday, May 24, 2024

The Mountain That Rose from the Molehill

Hypocrisy was alive and well in the Knesset.

As soon as the announcement was made, the discussion in the Knesset focused on a single topic: the recommendations of the police for Prime Minister Netanyahu to be indicted. At 8:00 in the evening, the police announced that their recommendations would be delayed for another three quarters of an hour, sparking a flurry of speculation. Many believed that Attorney General Mandelblit was making a last-ditch effort to prevent the police from making recommendations at all. That, however, was a bizarre thing to suspect. Even if the attorney general was opposed to the recommendations, he could never have prevented the police from leaking their ideas to the press; after all, the police are experts at leaking information.

What is amusing, perhaps, is that all the reactions were entirely predictable and ran along party lines. The members of the right responded exactly as could be expected, as did the politicians on the left. There was no originality; there were no profound insights. The only exception was Tzipi Hotovely, the deputy foreign minister. During her response to MK Yair Lapid’s suggestion to commemorate the Armenian genocide, Hotovely rebuked him for his role in the investigation, “If you had even a drop of integrity, you should have demanded the prime minister’s resignation then!”

Lapid — A Small-Time Snitch

The Knesset was officially debating the state budget for the year 2019; however, when the recommendations were announced, the discussion turned to that subject. Every member of the Knesset addressed the issue in his own style. The most outspoken, as usual, was David Amsalem, whose off-the-cuff remarks targeted Yair Lapid. “All in all, you are nothing but a small-time snitch,” he declared. He also attacked Lapid for being a “draft dodger.”

“I heard Lapid say, after he abandoned Yaakov Peri,” Amsalem said, referring to the MK from Yesh Atid who resigned from the Knesset last week, following a media report that he had evaded the draft at the age of 18, “that ‘we are adhering to the principles of Yesh Atid.’ I said to myself: What principles is he talking about, exactly? Let us review them. We recently found out that Yair Lapid is a central witness, a key witness [in the case against Netanyahu] …“You are a pathetic snitch! And you are not ashamed of your behavior!

“The second thing is something I thought about when he contrasted the values of Yesh Atid with Yaakov Peri,” Amsalem continued his diatribe. “Ultimately, as you know, Peri did serve the country; he was the head of the Shin Bet. You, meanwhile, worked in the magazine Bamachaneh. You left your home at 9:00 every morning, after your mother prepared a sandwich with cheese for you, and she said to you, ‘Yair, don’t be late; we start frying the shnitzels at 11:00.’ You were in the army? When all is said and done, you were the ultimate draft dodger. On a practical level, you completely avoided serving in the army. You were a boxer, a news reporter, and a movie actor. You spent your time in the coffeehouses of Tel Aviv while the rest of us grew up in development towns. Evidently, Yesh Atid values working as a reporter for Bamachaneh…. I don’t belittle those values, but I certainly belittle the behavior that you have shown us today, and the fact that you are truly a small-time snitch.”

Yair Lapid indeed spent his army years as a correspondent for Bamachaneh, the magazine of the IDF, which closed down two years ago. Amsalem pounced on that fact, along with much more, to launch a stinging attack on Lapid. He went on, “You have been audacious and impudent. You are constantly traveling abroad; you are never in the Knesset. I once said that if we were an honest company and the Knesset was an ordinary employer, you would be charged with embezzlement. You receive a salary of over 40,000 shekels every month, and you aren’t here even for one hour each month. What do you do instead? You take the taxpayers’ money and travel all over the world, flying in first class and staying in luxury hotels. You bring aides with you, and you have yourself photographed abroad as if you were the foreign minister of the State of Israel. And all of this is paid for by the Israeli government; make no mistake. It isn’t a matter of accepting a cigar from a friend, which you reported that the prime minister did; this is the use of government money that belongs to the State of Israel. That is actually what the values of Yesh Atid are about. You are dreaming about becoming the next prime minister, but I have pure contempt for those values.

“I asked myself the following question: This is science fiction, but let us imagine that you are elected prime minister. What message will you give to the children who want to enlist in the IDF? I want to understand this. My daughter was in Tzeelim [an army base in the north, which is known for its demanding routine]. You have never even seen the place, even in pictures. Is that what the values of Yesh Atid are about? Well, I reject those values, just as I reject the behavior that you have shown us today.”

Kachlon Boasts About the Budget

As I mentioned, the real topic on the agenda was the state budget for the year 2019. At the beginning of the debate, the speakers indeed confined their remarks to that subject. The opposition vilified Finance Minister Kachlon and the government, while the coalition praised them. The first speaker was the Minister of Finance himself. “This budget is a socially robust budget,” he proclaimed. “It is based on a vision of the state’s best interests, and it will develop and strengthen the economy both from an ethical standpoint and in a financial sense. We are promoting an economic agenda that will create genuine change in the lives of the country’s citizens, an agenda that has the ability to build a better society, the type of society that our parents wished to see, each with their own respective visions. They wanted to create a country with more equality, as much as possible, and with a more just distribution of wealth. I promised at the beginning of my term to achieve that, and I am happy to report that I am doing everything in my power to fulfill that promise, and we are seeing it come true.”

Kachlon boasted that he has helped the entire country. “As the Minister of Finance, I am color blind with respect to dividing resources,” he asserted. “You can be on the left or on the right; you can be an Arab or a Jew; you can live in Yehuda or the Shomron or in the center of the country, or you can live in the south or in the north. Of course, there will be preference given to people who have been neglected or forgotten.” Of course, Kachlon was mindful of the upcoming elections as well. “Today, we have been here for almost three years,” he said. “This March, it will be three years since the elections; in May, three years will have passed since the government was established. We promised to continue rectifying injustices and dedicating resources to strengthen Israeli society. We promised that, and we are fulfilling our promise.”

Soon enough, it was announced that the police planned to publicize their recommendations within the hour. At that point, the speakers immediately shifted to that topic. The first to bring up the issue was MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz), who announced, “This is one of the strangest discussions that have ever taken place in this building…. We are all thinking about the same thing: the recommendations of the police that are scheduled to be announced shortly…. In one hour, we may all be in an entirely different situation, yet we are sitting here and conducting a debate as if everything was tranquil, as if the events we have been witnessing are completely normal, as if we do not have the most corrupt government in the history of this state….”

The Debate Shifts Gears

MK Shelly Yachimovich, as usual, was witty and sharp-tongued. “This is a black day for our country and for the rule of law,” she announced. “It is a good thing that on this black day, we can at least take solace in the strength and bravery of the criminal justice system. In spite of the threats, intimidation, and slander leveled against them, they have continued to do their work with courage, without fear and without favoritism. The crime of taking bribes is one of the most severe crimes recognized by law, and the more high-ranking the person who commits that crime, the greater is the corruption. When the person who committed the crime is the prime minister of the State of Israel, his corruption casts a heavy pall over the entire country. His actions were corrupt, destructive, and deplorable, and the way he has dealt with his situation has been egocentric and militant. He has no qualms about destroying the entire criminal justice system and everything around him, as long as he survives…. Bibi, go home,” she insisted.

Merav Michaeli joined the chorus of condemnation. “This is a difficult hour for us,” she said. “It is a difficult hour because the police of Israel have recommended indicting the prime minister of Israel on charges of bribery – for two different charges of bribery, Mr. Speaker. And then the prime minister comes along and says, for the umpteenth time, ‘There will be nothing because nothing happened.’ However, Mr. Prime Minister, something did happen. In fact, many things happened, even more than the cigars and the champagne….”

“Allegedly,” interjected Yitzchak Cohen, the Deputy Minister of Finance.

Soon, it was the turn of Mickey Zohar from the Likud party to speak. “I must admit that I have lost my faith in the police and their investigations of public elected officials,” he said. “As soon as the police come across a case that involves a public figure, that attracts widespread attention in the media, we find that they make decisions even before their investigations begin.”

“Where did you get that idea from?” demanded Yael Cohen-Paran.

“Every case involving a famous person ends with these recommendations from the police,” Zohar said. “But what happens to these cases? The vast majority of them do not lead to indictments.” The members of the opposition began screaming their objections, but Zohar stood his ground. “I am stating facts,” he insisted. “My friends, the facts are clear. You will have to deal with them. In 60 percent of the cases, the recommendations of the police are discarded. The same thing will happen in this case.”

“Over 80 percent,” David Amsalem corrected him.

“Thank you for that correction,” Mickey Zohar said. “Someone from the left told me that we are too organized for them. You can’t defeat us in the voting booth, so you have only one way to oust us from our positions in this building – through slander and collusion with the media, and, in this case, with the police as well. I am saying this here, at this podium, even though it means that they will begin investigating me tomorrow, and they will start looking through my background as well. I am not concerned. I am disgusted with this practice. I would prefer for the Israeli democracy to choose the prime minister at the polls, not through conspiracies or blatant lies about everything possible.” Another wave of screams began, and Mickey Zohar concluded his speech. “Very well. You will see that we are not afraid to go to elections, but we are equally unafraid of the truth. In the end of the day, when the attorney general makes his decision, you will all eat your words.”

“Let them at least be seasoned with pepper, salt, or something,” Leah Fadida said.

Two Cases of Corruption

According to the recommendations of the police, in both Case 1000 and Case 2000, there is enough evidence of graft to indict Netanyahu, as well as the other individuals involved in the cases: Arnon Milchan, the wealthy businessman accused of plying the prime minister with bribes, and Nuni Moses, the publisher of Yediot Acharonot. Let me briefly review the details of the cases.

Case 1000 relates to the allegations that Prime Minister Netanyahu was guilty of the crimes of taking bribes, fraud, and breach of trust in the context of his connections with Arnon Milchan and another businessman, James Packer of Australia. Over the course of the years, both men gave gifts to Netanyahu; that is an undisputed fact. The question is whether those gifts were meant to be bribes, or they were simply tokens of the businessmen’s friendships with the prime minister.

Case 2000 likewise deals with allegations of accepting bribes, fraud, and breach of trust. This case concerns the prime minister’s dealings with Mr. Arnon “Nuni” Moses, the owner and publisher of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Acharonot, who negotiated with Netanyahu to try to suppress the publication of Yisrael HaYom, a competing publication.

The police began an inquiry into both cases in July 2016. In December of that year, the attorney general allowed them to escalate the probe to the level of an investigation. The investigation was conducted by the Lahav 433 unit and was closely overseen by the state prosecutor and the attorney general. This fact is what makes the situation especially problematic for Netanyahu. It is true that the recommendations of the police do not constitute a final decision on an indictment, but since the investigation was monitored closely by the state prosecution and the attorney general himself, it seems far more likely that those recommendations will be accepted. The investigation was very far-reaching; about 80 witnesses were questioned, including people in foreign countries. It was revealed only on Tuesday night that Yair Lapid was one of the witnesses.

The police claim that they have proven that during the years between 2007 and 2016, Netanyahu and his family members received gifts of cigars, champagne, and jewelry from the two businessmen, or from others acting on behalf of them. They suspect that the cumulative value of these gifts reached one million shekels — about 750,000 shekels worth of gifts from Milchan, and the other 250,000 from Packer. In their recommendations, the police asserted, “With Mr. Netanyahu’s election to the office of prime minister in the year 2009, the scope and frequency of these gifts rose substantially…. The favors were given to the prime minister because of his position as prime minister and as Minister of Communications during the relevant period, in exchange for his actions, whether direct or indirect, to advance various matters that were intended to benefit Mr. Milchan in his business, his financial situation, his social standing, or the preservation of his reputation.”

Identifying the Quid Pro Quo

Netanyahu does not dispute the facts of the case; he maintains that the motivations were different. He insists that the businessmen are his friends. He has even publicized pictures of himself with them. That argument is addressed by the police in their recommendations. “The relationship between the prime minister and Mr. Milchan was a relationship based on bribery that reached the point of a criminal offense. It was not an innocent relationship between friends,” they asserted. The police argue that it is illegal to accept bribes even from a friend. But it will not be easy to press charges against the prime minister if this issue remains debatable.

If Milchan’s gifts were indeed bribes, what did Netanyahu give him in return? The police have an answer to that question as well: “The prime minister worked to extend the tax exemption for a returning resident beyond the period of ten years. That was a benefit that had tremendous financial value for Milchan. The prime minister is suspected of asking an official in the Finance Ministry to attend to this [and it has now been revealed that that official was Yair Lapid, who served as Minister of Finance]; however, the people of the Finance Ministry prevented him from promoting that objective, explaining that the benefit could not be reconciled with the national interests and preservation of the public coffers. The prime minister is also suspected of working to assist Milchan in arranging for a visa to the United States. That is a matter with far-reaching financial implications for Milchan. The prime minister contacted American government officials about this matter, including the Secretary of State and the American ambassador to Israel at the time. The prime minister also worked to advance Mr. Milchan’s entry as a stakeholder in Channel 2, an investment that Milchan desired for the economic benefits he would derive from it. The prime minister is suspected of interceding with the Ministry of Communications for this purpose when he still served as Minister of Communications.” There was another allegation, as well: “The prime minister acted illegally when he dealt with Channel 10 in the context of his position, even though he knew that Mr. Milchan, his friend, owned stock in the channel.” Based on this list of allegations, the police believe that an indictment is warranted.

As for Case 2000, this is how the police presented the facts of the case: “Beginning in the year 2009 and continuing through subsequent years, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Moses engaged in negotiations during their personal meetings, in which they discussed aiding each other in promoting their respective interests, in a quid pro quo exchange. In this context, they discussed the prospect of Mr. Moses helping Netanyahu cement his standing as prime minister through favorable coverage in Yediot Acharonot, in exchange for the prime minister helping Mr. Moses advance the economic interests of Yediot Acharonot by halting the growth of the newspaper Yisrael HaYom…. There is evidence of this from two recordings that were made at the prime minister’s behest and were carried out clandestinely with the cellular phone belonging to Ari Harow, at the prime minister’s residence in Yerushalayim.”

This explains why the case may lead to additional indictments as well. If Netanyahu received bribes, then the people who bribed him will also have to face judgment. All three – Milchan, Packer, and Moses – have expressed confidence that the attorney general will decide not to press charges against any of them.

Lapid Loses Face

Yair Lapid has emerged as one of the biggest losers from all this. It has now been revealed that Lapid provided incriminating testimony against Netanyahu. Lapid testified to the police that Netanyahu had pressured him, as the Minister of Finance, to extend the tax benefits for foreign residents that would have been advantageous for Milchan. Lapid boasted that he rejected Netanyahu’s demands, and thus prevented corruption from dictating government policy. But this has only cast Lapid himself in a negative light. After all, if he was truly so virtuous, why didn’t he speak out earlier? In fact, why didn’t he resign from Netanyahu’s allegedly corrupt government?

On Tuesday evening, Lapid held a lengthy closed meeting with the members of his party. A gaggle of journalists waited outside the room, while two members of the Knesset Guard stood outside the door. Finally, the party decided to send out Mickey Levy, a former police superintendent, to face the media. As he peered into the lenses of seven television cameras, his distress was evident in his eyes. “Yair Lapid performed his civic duty,” Levy asserted.

When Elazar Stern emerged from the room, he looked despondent. “You came out of this looking very bad,” I remarked to him. “Lapid’s downfall has begun.”

“The police asked him questions; he had to answer them,” Stern replied.

“Yes,” I said, “but now we know that he used to work for Milchan.”

“And he still refused to pass the ‘Milchan Law,’” Stern replied. “That makes it even better.”

I laughed. “That’s exactly what Netanyahu is saying in his own defense.”

Netanyahu is suspected of promoting the so-called “Milchan Law” in exchange for the gifts of cigars. That law would have provided major financial benefits to Milchan, sparing him from a huge tax bill. In his speech in response to the recommendations of the police – a speech that was a masterpiece from both a legal and a political standpoint – Netanyahu said, “How is it possible to deal seriously with the argument that I worked to benefit Milchan in exchange for cigars? I actually did the opposite: I worked to close down the channel of which he was a partial owner. One of the first things I did as the Minister of Finance was to break Milchan’s monopoly in the automotive spare parts industry, in complete opposition to his interests. The Milchan Law was also passed by the Olmert government and was promoted by the Finance Ministry under the aegis of Yair Lapid, in order to encourage investment in Israel.”

These comments are actually inaccurate. The law was not promoted by Lapid; on the contrary, the former finance minister, according to the police, rejected Netanyahu’s efforts to advance the law. But in this case, it is Lapid’s word against Netanyahu’s, and it seems that the public’s faith in Lapid is even lower than their faith in the prime minister. The burden of proof, as always, rests on the police.

I will not be surprised if the police recommendations end up strengthening Netanyahu and the Likud party. Our society tends to support the underdog, and Netanyahu is portraying himself as the victim of persecution. He has already survived three previous recommendations for indictment. In the 1990s, Netanyahu was accused of appointing an attorney general (Roni Bar-On) at Aryeh Deri’s request, in exchange for the support of the Shas party. In the year 2000, there were allegations that he used government money to pay a mover to transport his furniture. On another occasion, he was investigated on the suspicion that he had illegally used the funds of the prime minister’s office to pay for food. Now that he is facing another potential indictment, his personal and political future is in the hands of his good friend, the attorney general.

The police are on the defensive, due to the widespread belief that they are pursuing a vendetta against Netanyahu. Nevertheless, Police Commissioner Roni Alshich, who has been criticized for appearing weak and hesitant since his appointment, has gained renewed respect for confronting the prime minister with a mountain of criminal charges. It is still possible that Netanyahu will extricate himself from this– not because there was no wrongdoing, as he has insisted repeatedly, but because gifts of cigars are not a good enough reason to oust a prime minister from office. Nevertheless, it is also possible that Attorney General Mandelblit will decide to press charges against him. In that case, the clock will begin ticking toward his political demise.

The Prime Minister Responds

Last Tuesday, at 8:00 p.m., the Knesset was gripped by tension. At that exact time, all the television stations began their news programs. The country had been in a frenzy for an hour, anxiously awaiting the recommendations that were promised. At 8:00 we were informed that there had been a delay, and the recommendations would be announced at 8:45. It was also announced that the prime minister would immediately respond to the recommendations in a speech from his home on Rechov Balfour. Dozens of reporters and television crews stationed themselves there, awaiting the speech. The frenzy of movement behind the curtained windows indicated that extensive preparations were taking place. Netanyahu was consulting with his legal advisors and with Yariv Levin, the Minister of Tourism. Levin is a member of the prime minister’s legal circle and is considered a legal expert and a highly intelligent man.

Netanyahu’s speech was very well developed. He spoke with confidence, mentioning his prestigious military career, which included the rescue of the hostages on a hijacked Sabena flight. He insisted that all of his actions had been taken solely for the benefit of the country, and he reminded the country that he has been heavily persecuted throughout his time in office. “Ever since I was elected as prime minister, I have hardly had a single day when I wasn’t targeted with empty accusations. And not only I, but my wife and children as well have been targeted in a cruel fashion, solely in order to harm me.” Netanyahu claimed that 15 police inquiries and investigations have been opened against him to date, all with the goal of removing him from power. And he is correct about something: There is some basis for his insistence that the police recommendations are meaningless. After all, there have already been three occasions when the police advocated pressing charges against him, and the attorney general declined to implement their recommendations.

Netanyahu also pointed out that the investigators seem to driven by an obsession. He even admitted that he had assisted Milchan in one specific area. “I never worked for Arnon Milchan’s benefit, not on this issue and not in any other respect, with one exception: his visa,” he said. “How can anyone claim that the cigars led me to ask the Americans to reinstate the visa that had been revoked? The basic obligation of any prime minister is to act on behalf of anyone who suffered harm because of his actions for the State of Israel. That is what Shimon Peres did, and that is what I also did when the United States wanted to revoke his visa. How can anyone say that I did that for cigars? Neither Shimon Peres nor I ever considered abandoning a person who helped the State of Israel, simply because he was our friend. I did the same thing for other people who had helped the country as well.”

A Political Earthquake

Netanyahu’s speech also addressed Case 2000, the second case in which the police recommended indicting him. According to the investigators, Nuni Moses, the publisher of Yediot Acharonot, promised Netanyahu favorable coverage in his newspaper, in return for the prime minister’s efforts to limit the operation of Yisrael HaYom.

“How can anyone claim that I wanted to act on behalf of Nuni Moses by passing the Yisrael HaYom law?” Netanyahu demanded, referring to the law that was intended to close down Yisrael HaYom, a newspaper that competes with Yedioat Acharonot. “In reality, I did the exact opposite: I led the opposition to the law and I voted against the law. More than that, I dissolved the Knesset and jeopardized my own political future. That was the reason that the law did not pass! How can it be that there are recommendations against me, but no one is calling for the people who advanced the law to be indicted?”

It was a typical Bibi Netanyahu speech, but it will not affect the outcome of this process. The decision will be made by Attorney General Mandelblit – and his decision will not be based on what the police recommend, nor will it be influenced by Netanyahu’s speech. For Mandelblit, there is only one question of importance: If he presses charges against Netanyahu, what is the probability of a conviction? Mandelblit has already announced that if the prime minister is indicted and then acquitted, it will cause a political earthquake. He cannot allow that “earthquake” to happen, certainly not on his watch.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has no doubt as to the outcome of this situation. He concluded his speech with the assertion: “I am confident that the truth will come to light, that the next elections will be held on time, and that I will receive your faith once again. Thank you very much.”



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