NOTE: Middle East Eye published a condensed version of this piece earlier this week. This version is both expanded and updated with news developments reported since it was first published.
It looks like Bibi Netanyahu’s long history of skirting corruption charges may be running out. The guy has been accused and investigated for various shady schemes for decades. Twenty years ago, police even declared him so implicated that they recommended he be charged. But like the cat with nine lives, he’s escaped every entanglement. But not this time.
Case 1000: Cigars for Cars
Netanyahu’s own hand-picked police commissioner, Roni Alsheikh, recommended to the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, that the prime minister be indicted on corruption charges in two separate cases (popularly known as Cases 1000 and 2000). In the first one, the Israeli leader is accused of accepting $300,000 in gifts from billionaires Arnon Milchan and James Packer in return for providing each of them assistance in obtaining residential visas (Milchan’s was a U.S. visa and Packer an Israeli visa). Milchan and Packer were also courting Bibi for assistance in creating a free trade zone bordering Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. The deal would’ve netted them huge profits through manufacturing cheap Indian cars for Tata Motors, whose CEO, Ratan Tata, was also on the take. They would’ve benefited in part from the cheap labor they could exploit from a desperate Palestinian and Jordanian labor pool.
This is a perfect example of how the Israeli economic system works. It’s a nation state turned into a souk in which everything is for sale, including national honor. It’s commerce as hondeling; a system designed to benefit the oligarchs and screw the little people, whether they’re Jews or Palestinians.
Returning to Milchan, he has a checkered history as an Israeli intelligence asset. He has publicly acknowledged the role he played in successfully stealing U.S. nuclear triggers from a manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania in the 1960s. He helped set up the front companies which the Israelis used in completing their theft and then shipping the stolen items back to Israel. There they were used to create the first nuclear weapon at its Dimona plant.
Milchan provided $250,000 in goodies for the prime minister and his wife including their favorite brands of pink champagne, fine cigars and jewelry in return for Netanyahu lobbying John Kerry to renew Milchan’s U.S. residency visa. Packer offered $50,000 in goodies, including front row seats for Sarah Netanyahu to attend Mariah Carey concerts, while son, Yair enjoyed complimentary stays in his Tel Aviv condominium. The son also took vacations at the Australian billionaire’s expense, even using his own private plane. In return, Packer sought the elder Netanyahu’s assistance in obtaining an Israeli residency visa. He planned to take up residence in Israel in order to skirt the Australian tax man.
Case 2000 Quid Pro Quo: Obsession with Favorable Media Coverage
In Case 2000, Netanyahu conspired with the then-publisher of one of Israel’s leading daily newspapers, Yediot Achronot, to publish favorable coverage of him (the paper was known as a strong critic of his policies) in return for an agreement that Israel HaYom, Israel’s most popular daily (owned by Sheldon Adelson) would stop publishing its weekend edition. Adelson’s paper, popularly known as Bibiton (Bibi-news), is free. That offers an insurmountable competitive obstacle to other Israeli dailies, which don’t have billionaire deep-pocket owners.
Bibiton regularly published fawning coverage of the Israeli prime minister and was launched to promote his political career. SInce this news broke Adelson, who subsidized the paper to the tune of nearly $200-million, has broken with Netanyahu and coverage in Israel HaYom has become decidedly less favorable to him.
Case 3000: Nuclear Subs and Greased Palms
There are two further corruption cases brewing which haven’t yet enveloped Netanyahu himself, though that could happen. In the first (Case 3000), the prime minister’s personal lawyer engaged in a scheme to rig bidding on the Israeli purchase of German nuclear-armed Dolphin submarines. The lawyer and the Israeli representative of the German submarine manufacturer, Thyssen Krupp, allegedly pocketed up to 20% of a $2.5-billion contract thanks to the collaboration of the German company in the chicanery. It’s curious that the German government has hesitated to begin its own investigation claiming the Israeli authorities have refused to coöperate in the proceedings.
Case 4000: Saving Bezeq Millions in Return for Flattering Israel’s Lady Macbeth
Case 4000 involves the former CEO of Israel’s leading telecommunications company, Bezeq. He is accused of arranging with Netanyahu’s appointee in the Communications ministry to offer favorable regulatory rulings to Bezeq worth “hundreds of millions of shekels” in return for favorable coverage in Bezeq’s online news portal, Walla. Though for many months this particular charge seemed on the back burner, in the past two days the Israeli police have announced they are assuming responsibility for this investigation from the securities authorities. Haaretz has also reported that new evidence has surfaced to prove culpability of both government officials and Bezeq executives. Yesterday, Israeli media reported that both the communication ministry’s director general and chief counsel were arrested along with several company officials. This case is now on the front burner. My post goes into further detail here.
Both the Yediot Achronot and Bezeq cases exhibit how obsessed Bibi is about manipulation of the media. In the Bezeq case, the flattering PR wasn’t even intended to benefit him. Rather, it was meant to flatter his Lady Sara Macbeth. Remember too, that Israel HaYom (“Bibiton”) was originally intended as an entire newspaper devoted to promoting Bibi’s policies, career and prime ministership. Sheldon Adelson bought this bauble for Bibi and has financed it to the tune of $200-million over the years.
Tyrants like Hitler, Putin and others have proven how critical it is to control the media and the message it offers the populace. If there is an independent media, it poses an obstacle to total control and manipulation. In Bibi’s case, he permits a weakened free press, mortally wounded by Adelson’s monopolistic media empire. It doesn’t threaten the Israeli leader in its debilitated state.
Netanyahu’s involvement hovers over all of these cases, though investigators have, so far, not tied him directly to the submarine affair. Apparently, they feel it is easier to prove his direct participation in the first two schemes and harder in the latter two, since he may’ve shielded himself through the participation of intermediaries.
There is another shocking aspect to these investigations. Netanyahu doesn’t shy from a fight. In fact, it brings out his political pugilist impulses. The police have accused him of hiring private investigators to “tail” them and to monitor their phone communications, seeking “dirt” that might be used to impeach the police investigation. To be more precise, the police haven’t directly accused the prime minister of directing this conspiracy. But they have implied it.
The strategy of police commissioner Roni Alsheikh seems quite ingenious. He’s developed not just one case or two, knowing how creative Netanyahu is in escaping from previous investigations. He’s investigating four separate cases against him. This way, if one fails, there are three more, any one of which could lead to his indictment, conviction and imprisonment.
He’s also developing these cases slowly and deliberately, anticipating that each new announcement of evidence or state witnesses against Bibi adds yet another drip to the Chinese water torture targeting the prime minister. It’s death by a thousand leaks.
Walter Soriano: Bibi’s Bully
Last week, Israel’s Kan TV news program ran a segment revealing that a UK Haredi Jew named Walter Soriano (Hebrew language profile) was hired to obtain unsavory information that might weaken the investigation against the prime minister. Soriano, once known to workers in the prime minister’s office as “The Thug,” apparently has been an intimate of the Israeli leader for decades and acted as his “muscle” when needed. Kan produced a contract signed by Soriano with unnamed parties listing the services he would provide including HUMINT (physical and electronic surveillance) tracking of the police.
The news segment noted that among those involved in the campaign to uncover unsavory information were veterans of Israel’s IDF HUMINT division, Unit 8200. One of its staples is bugging Palestinian telecommunications to identify people with vulnerabilities (infidelity, homosexuality, terminal illness) who might be recruited as Shabak spies. You can imagine what these investigators were tasked with regarding their police targets.
One former IDF special forces commander was paid nearly $30,000 per month for his services in compiling useful information about police officials involved in these cases. The news segment does not specify Soriano’s fee, but it must be considerably larger.
If this sounds like Harvey Weinstein’s employment of the Israeli intelligence firm, Black Cube, to dig up dirt on his female victim/accusers, that’s because it is. With the additional unprecedented phenomenon of an Israeli prime minister suspected of major acts of corruption and self dealing, turning the tables on law enforcement and investigating the investigators.
No previous Israeli criminal suspect has had the power and the nerve to engage in such behavior. It shows just how corrupt Israel has become under twelve years of Netanyahu rule.
Netanyahu has even produced a creative argument against his accusers in the police which Trump hasn’t (yet) thought of: the police investigation is fatally flawed because the fact that someone (not him, of course) has been pursuing them has caused the police to be biased against him. That’s a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too argument: I didn’t hire Soriano, but the fact that someone did, means the case against me is fatally flawed.
Indictment: Will They or Won’t They? And Does it Matter?
Where do things go from here? After the police recommendation, the attorney general, another hand-picked Netanyahu figure who was once his cabinet secretary, must determine whether to open a case against him. If he does, an indictment is in the offing (though the final decision could take as long as a year). Once that happens, Netanyahu becomes quite vulnerable. No sitting prime minister has ever withstood such a legal development and remained in power. Ehud Olmert was the last PM who faced this predicament, and he resigned.
Bibi has adamantly stated he would never resign if he was indicted. But the decision may not be up to him. If his coalition partners stand firm behind him, he may withstand the challenge. But if they don’t (as happened to Olmert), he will fall.
Much will depend on the will of the people: if there are massive demonstrations against Bibi (so far protests have been regular, but not huge) then his political partners may relent and abandon him.
If Mandelblit refuses to indict, that will open a complicated can of worms, in which many in Israel will see his refusal as a crooked deal by one crony to benefit his political godfather. That will undoubtedly arouse immense anger within Israel. Though just how much remains to be seen.
It’s very important not to resort to the sort of Cassandra Effect many in the liberal (Zionist) media will adopt: Bibi is falling; this could be an opening for a new prime minister who will be more open to compromise and a peace deal with Palestinians. You’ll read that headline in the New York Times, possibly the Washington Post, maybe in the Guardian. Don’t believe it for a minute. It’s not going to happen.
The leading candidate to replace Netanyahu may be the center-right leader of Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid. Though he has a reputation for being more moderate than Netanyahu, he is no dove on the Israel-Palestine conflict. He is as racist as any Israeli politician. Within Likud, the choices are dreary: Gilad Erdan, Gideon Saar, Silvan Shalom, Danny Danon. Moshe Kahlon is another dark horse. Though some are slightly more pragmatic than others, all vie for the title most-racist, most-intolerant, most-bellicose pol of all.
Whoever his successor may be he (whoever he may be), like all of his predecessors in that chair, will never undertake the type of compromises necessary to broker a successful peace deal. Whoever replaces Netanyahu will offer more of the same. Perhaps he will sound different or look different. But underneath, he will offer the same refusals, the same rejection as Bibi. The unfortunate truth is that no Israeli political leader and the electorate at large are unwilling to make the compromises necessary to achieve peace.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.