Wednesday, Jul 24, 2024

My Take on the News

It Isn’t Over for Netanyahu Yet

The scandals just keep coming. Shlomo Filber, a close associate of Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu and director-general of the Ministry of Communications, has now signed an agreement to become a state witness. He plans to testify that Netanyahu pressured him to grant benefits to Shaul Elovich, one of the owners of the Bezeq telecommunications company, in exchange for favorable coverage on Walla, the news site controlled by Elovich. It has also come to light that one of Netanyahu’s confidants offered a judge the position of attorney general in exchange for closing the criminal probe into the prime minister’s wife (who was suspected of using her position to obtain government funds to cover the family’s private expenses). This is in addition to the testimony from Yair Lapid, who claims that Netanyahu tried to assist his friend, businessman Arnon Milchan, by asking Lapid to promote the “Milchan Law” (a law that assists returning Israeli residents and would have saved Milchan from a huge financial loss), as well as the suspicion that Netanyahu and Nuni Moses, the publisher of Yediot Acharonot, reached a deal for the prime minister to close down the Yisroel Hayom newspaper in exchange for favorable coverage in Moses’s paper. And then there is the submarine case as well.

My friends, this is not a Purim shpiel. These are the events unfolding right now in the State of Israel. It should come as no surprise that the opposition has already called for the Knesset to dissolve itself and new elections to be held. Many have already declared that Netanyahu’s political career is over. In addition, many in the chareidi community are concerned that the new draft law will not be passed soon enough. This will lead us into trouble with the Supreme Court, which gave the government only one year to pass a new law.

What I would like to say, though, is that we should not be too quick to eulogize Binyamin Netanyahu. It is still possible that he will survive all of these scandals, even though it looks like we have reached the beginning of the end of his career. Without wearying you with the details, I will say this: Not only does Netanyahu still have a presumption of innocence, but if you look closely at the details of each of the cases against him, you will find that none of the charges are as serious as they have been made out to be. The prosecution is not likely to be influenced by the media hullabaloo; they will examine all of the evidence and the probability of a conviction, and they will make their decision accordingly. And by those measures, Netanyahu is not in a bad situation at all.

In some of the cases (the submarine affair and the attempt to bribe a judge), there is no evidence at all that Netanyahu was personally involved. There are two state witnesses who claim that Netanyahu tried to benefit Elovich (which is evidence that there was a quid pro quo arrangement between the two, and that the prime minister did not merely receive gifts from a friend). One of the witnesses is Yair Lapid, who was the Minister of Finance at the time. The other is Filber, who was the director-general of the Ministry of Communications. But even if those two witnesses testify against the prime minister, it will still be their word against his – and by law, the burden of proof rests on the prosecution. Netanyahu will deny the allegations; in fact, he has already denied them. “I did not do anything to benefit Milchan,” he told the investigators. In order to incriminate him, the police will have to find evidence to prove that he did; a state witness is not sufficient evidence for that purpose.


Lapid on the Losing Side

It is amazing to think that Yair Lapid may turn out to have been the biggest loser in the Milchan affair. His story is turning out similar to that of Haman, who went from riding the king’s horse to being publicly humiliated, and ultimately hanged on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordechai. I was in the Knesset on the evening that the police recommendations were announced, when it came to light that Yair Lapid had been questioned by the police and had told them that Netanyahu spoke to him about Elovich. But it was Lapid, not Netanyahu, who emerged from the plenum in shame. Like Haman in the Megillah, he gathered all of his advisors and friends from the Yesh Atid party, while two members of the Knesset Guard stood watch outside the door, to prevent anyone from eavesdropping on their conversation. In the corridor outside the room, as well as outside the Knesset building, news reporters and cameramen waited for their scoops. At the end of the lengthy, tense meeting, MK Mickey Levi, a former deputy commissioner in the police force, was sent out to speak to the press. When he emerged, he looked pitiful.

Ever since it was revealed that Yair Lapid became a witness against Netanyahu, he has become an object of scorn. One of the best speeches on this note was delivered by Betzalel Smotrich of the Bayit Yehudi party. It was an address that bordered on a Purim speech.

“Mr. Chairman, Mr. Minister, and my friends, members of the Knesset,” Smotrich began. “Tell me, Mr. Chairman, may I present a riddle to you? Do you permit to challenge you like that? I will read aloud a paragraph that was written in the weekend supplement of Yediot Acharonot on a Friday. I don’t have the Hebrew date, but it was on May 16, 2008. After I read it, you will tell me who wrote it.”

Smotrich then began to read aloud: “‘Let’s put Olmert aside. There isn’t a single word in this column that relates specifically to him. Let us speak about the next prime minister; after all, it is clear to all of us that it will happen to him as well. If you want to become famous, you file complaints. If you are a political rival, you find someone else to make a complaint…. Every frustrated macher, arrogant clerk, or Internet reporter with a craving for fame can interrupt the functioning of our government. A government under investigation is a weak government, which can easily be extorted.’”

Smotrich then addressed his audience again. “This is an article that was written to defend Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the time, and to explain why it was wrong that he was being investigated over and over again, and the harm that it caused the government. Mr. Chairman, who do you believe was the author of this article – this corrupt article, this article that defends a government of criminals? Now, I don’t want to embarrass you, Meir.”

The chairman of the sitting was MK Meir Cohen, a member of Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. “No,” he said. “I do not have the answer, so I will remain silent.”

“So you are sitting in silence,” Smotrich acknowledged. “Amir, do you know who it was?”

Amir Ohana of the Likud party asked, “Was it a man or a woman?”

“A man,” Smotrich replied.

“Is he sitting here?” Ohana asked.

“He is here very infrequently, only on very rare occasions,” Smotrich said. “In short, my friends, the person who wrote this was none other than Yair Lapid, who sat in this room about an hour or two ago and spoke about the ‘monastery of silence.’ It is a good thing that he himself does not have a penchant for silence, so that he wrote those words for us to see. My friends, hypocrisy has no limits. You are hypocrites! You have failed over and over again in the democratic arena. You are champions in the polls, but you have failed the test of the people’s votes. The country has elected a right-wing government over and over again, and you haven’t been able to replace them through the voting booths, so you are trying to do it in other ways. When Sharon decided to expel the people from Gush Katif, you protected him as if he was an esrog. You treasured Olmert and Peres as well. Where was the outcry from all the people who are standing here and screaming about the gifts [that Netanyahu received] when Shimon Peres, of blessed memory, organized parties for himself at a cost of tens of millions of shekels, and had buildings named after him during his lifetime? Chas veshalom, no one would touch him. What about Fouad Ben-Eliezer of blessed memory, the political patron of Stav Shapir, the lady who never stops screaming here? I didn’t hear a word from her when his scandals erupted one after another. And then there was Ezer Weizmann and others as well. When it came to all of them, you were all silent. But when it comes to Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu, you have suddenly become such purists. Do you know what that means? You are hypocrites!”


Former Investigators Seek Attention in the Media

They emerge from their holes like rodents. It happens mostly when the headlines are filled with news of criminal investigations against prominent figures. These people don’t have any more information than the average citizen, but they allow themselves to be interviewed as if they have a wealth of insights into the situation. Their intelligence, though, lies solely in their ability to inflict harm.

Recently, a newspaper reporter interviewed Nachum Levi, a former officer in the Lahav 433 anti-fraud investigation unit, who is now retired. The article introduced Levi as “the senior official who investigated four prime ministers (Barak, Sharon, Olmert, and Netanyahu), as well as other government ministers and mayors, and was driven out of the State Comptroller’s office.” According to the writer, Levi “warned in a special interview that the guardians of justice are not fulfilling their responsibilities” and “attacked the way that Cases 1000 and 3000 are being handled.” In addition, he was said to have revealed “how the elected officials who usually spout confidence appear when they are forced to answer questions.”

Indeed, Levi said in the interview, “They all give answers that sometimes surprise you: How can a person serving in a position like his give such foolish answers? But they are not able to be impressive when they are in trouble, and I understand that. They have no real answers to the questions; otherwise, they would speak much more tersely and clearly. They are truly pathetic.” Nevertheless, Levi was the true failure. Criminal charges were never brought against most of the officials he investigated. What is actually pathetic about this interview is his hubris. Even the charges that were brought against Olmert had nothing to do with the investigator’s sophistication or genius. It was solely because there was a state witness, Shula Zaken. To borrow Levi’s own words, the interview was “truly pathetic.”

Levi was never promoted in Lahav 443, and that says something. He was also driven out of the State Comptroller’s office. That, too, can tell us something. When he was asked about that, Levi lashed out at State Comptroller Shapira with biting criticism. “I initially believed that the State Comptroller had no personal agenda,” he said, “but then it turned out that I was wrong.” In his view, he is the innocent victim, while Shapira was the criminal. That, too, is “truly pathetic.” In fact, it may even be criminal for a man to publicly reveal the things he heard behind closed doors while he was serving as a police investigator. In response to the interview, the State Comptroller’s office noted simply that Levi has been recycling the same complaints for the past five and a half years.

When asked about his investigations of previous prime ministers, Levi had no compunctions about revealing their secrets. He derided Bibi and Sharon, and he quoted things that they said when they were interrogated. “Bibi was troubled. He might not have been afraid, but he was suspicious. Sharon was more charming, if one can compare them in that way. He had bourekas on the table, and he urged us to eat… But his answers to our questions were completely detached from reality.” And here is another tidbit from the horse’s mouth: “Evidently, these people have no pockets. They don’t know what it means to spend a shekel, so they don’t even have wallets. Throughout the interrogation, Sharon claimed that he didn’t know about the million and a half dollars in his and his sons’ bank accounts. He hadn’t heard about it or seen it. Could a million and a half dollars enter your bank account without your knowledge?”

Levi’s bravado was a product of his arrogance. He spoke derisively about the State Comptroller, Netanyahu, Olmert, Sharon, and Deri. He even spoke against Mandelblit and Hanegbi. But his pride was completely unwarranted. He investigated four prime ministers, but he failed to have charges pressed against three of them. He believes in his own brilliance and sophistication, but the results tell a very different story: Unlike Barak, Netanyahu, and Sharon, he is a complete failure. What gives him the right to boast and to make disparaging judgments of others in the pages of a newspaper article?

The prime minister’s office had a fitting response: “The investigation in which Nachum Levi participated yielded no results. Apparently, Levi has a hard time accepting that fact. What value can there be in the words of a retired investigator about a case that was closed 20 years ago by the attorney general at the time? …The mere fact that Levi has made a point of making appearances and being interviewed on this subject over the years shows that he has a personal agenda in criticizing Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

It is amazing to think that this is the same man who investigated Deri. Nachum Levi expressed his outrage at the fact that the public has repeatedly elected corrupt officials. But perhaps he should draw a different conclusion: that the people do not have faith in the police and their investigations. Levi bemoaned the fact that Deri returned to the position of Minister of the Interior. Perhaps we should remind him that after Deri was convicted, the Shas party won 17 mandates. That was a proclamation made by half a million people that they had no faith in the investigators.


The Ramblings of Another Frustrated Official

Similar comments were made by Meir Gilboa, another former official from Lahav 433. He was interviewed about Bibi’s attacks on the police. “Whenever there is a scandal, the subjects go on the offensive,” Gilboa said. “First they attack the police and say, ‘Just wait. This case will come before the prosecution and you will see that it is complete nonsense.’ Then it comes to the prosecution and they say, ‘Just wait until it gets to the court.’ There have even been attacks on the State Comptroller.” As an example, Gilboa cited the case of the criminal investigation into Aryeh Deri, which elicited widespread criticism of the police at the time. In that case, though, the criticism was well-deserved. The investigation wasn’t merely flawed, but mired in criminal misconduct. Gilboa himself was the perpetrator of some of those crimes. He, too, did not reach the highest echelons of Lahav 433, and he was also ejected from the State Comptroller’s office. Neither Levi nor Gilboa are sources of pride to the police, but they benefit from the fact that their failures have been buried in the past. As for the actual content of his comments, I have to wonder if Gilboa fails to realize that many of the cases investigated by his unit were subsequently dismissed by the prosecution. Apparently, he has also forgotten the many instances in which the courts acquitted public figures (such as Weinroth, Ne’eman, and Raful). If there is something peculiar in our country, it is the fact that the press is interested in the things that these people have to say.

Moshe Tamam, another former investigator in Lahav 433 who works today as an attorney, was also interviewed by the media. He spoke frankly and humbly, even admitting to some of his own past mistakes. When he was asked why he had left his work as an investigator and had chosen to become a defense attorney instead, he replied, “As an attorney, you are freed from the expectations that a police officer must meet. Even though no one ever tells a police investigator that his job is to ensure a conviction, I don’t know many investigators who look for evidence of innocence. They will all tell you that they are looking for the truth, and they are correct about that, but the question of where you look for the truth is very significant.”

The interviewer asked him, “Are you actually saying that police investigators try to make the sequence of events conform to the thesis of their investigation?”

Tamam replied, “When you are an investigator, if you happen to come across evidence that the accused is not really guilty of the crime, that is fine. But do you actively look for that evidence? No.” In other words, to the same extent that the person under investigation is intent on exonerating himself, the investigators are intent on incriminating him. They will never look for evidence of his innocence. On the contrary, they might even hide any such evidence, as we have seen in quite a few cases.


Israel Aids America

Four months ago, I read the following: “The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, headed by Minister Naftali Bennett, is advancing a plan to contribute a sum of one million dollars in emergency aid to the Jewish community in Houston to help it recover from the severe damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey. Bennett says, ‘The Jewish state is put to the test at times of crisis for our brethren throughout the world. This is a very clear declaration of mutual responsibility.’ The financial aid, which is to be brought to the cabinet for approval in its next session, will be distributed through the local consul for the purpose of restoring the community’s institutions (schools, shuls, and the community center), which are not funded or supported by the government and would have no other way to recover.”

As you know, in August 2017, the city of Houston was hit by a hurricane, which caused dozens of fatalities and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. The Jewish community in the city, which numbers about 60,000 people, incurred serious damage due to the disaster. Many of its schools and shuls became unusable, and the local Jewish nursing home, which housed 300 elderly people, incurred heavy damage. The Jewish Community Center was also flooded, and thousands of Jewish families lost their homes. Contributions have poured in from Jewish communities around the world, including Israel, to help thousands of people recover from the catastrophe.

“The city of Houston suffered a serious blow last week,” Bennett said at the time, “and the members of the Jewish community, 70 percent of whom lived in the flooded areas, were hit particularly hard. The State of Israel has a moral obligation not only to be concerned about our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora, but also to provide them with assistance. Their schools and shuls were flooded and rendered unusable. The Jewish nursing home and community center were damaged, and hundreds of families were left homeless. From conversations I had last week with the leaders of the community and with Israeli representatives in the city, I have learned that the damage was extensive and the recovery will take years. Over the years, the Jewish communities have stood at Israel’s side when we needed help. Now it is our turn to stand by the side of the community in Houston.”

I have now been informed that a shul, the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, is slated to be demolished after surviving the hurricane. The shul administration has decided to demolish the building and move to a new shul, in a place that does not suffer from frequent flooding. At the last minyan held in the shul, people wept. One of the members of the shul is Gilad Katz, the Israeli consul in Houston. In the past, Katz was a close confidant of Netanyahu. The government decided to appoint him to his post in Houston in December 2016.

This week, if I understood correctly, the funds provided by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs were released to the recipients in Houston. The Orthodox shul in question will be receiving $125,000, while identical sums will be transferred to the Reform and Conservative shuls in the area. An additional grant of $125,000 will be transferred to the local Jewish nursing home, while a larger sum – half a million dollars – will be granted to the Jewish Community Center. This contribution will cover the costs of an exercise facility, which is already in advanced stages of construction. I am not sure if all of these details are exactly accurate, but the general picture is clear: The State of Israel is now sending financial aid to the United States, in a surprising turnaround.




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