A few hours ago, Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit filed corruption indictments against Bibi Netanyahu on three of four cases brought against him. I’ve included the Hebrew text of the full 63-page indictment here.
Though there had been rumors that the AG might reduce the original charges, he did not do so. The timing of the announcement is also important as Mandelblit chose to file the day after Benny Gantz announced he’d failed to form a new government, making a third set of elections likely. Clearly, the state’s chief lawyer had wanted to avoid having the indictments impact the electoral process. But with a third election in the cards, that no longer seemed possible. It is very possible, though not certain, that the indictments could sway the voters and influence the next election likely scheduled for the early spring.
The three indictments are for Case 4000, which Haaretz portrays:
Netanyahu and Elovich engaged in a quid-pro-pro deal in which Netanyahu – as communication minister – led regulatory steps directly tied to Elovich’s businesses [telecommunicaton conglomerate, Bezeq] and interests that yielded the tycoon some $500 million.
In return,…Netanyahu and his wife Sara made consistent requests to alter the coverage on the Walla News website in order to serve the Netanyahus’ interests and target their opponents. Elovich allegedly pressed the editors of the website to comply with the Netanyahus’ demands…
“Media coverage was of great importance to defendant Netanyahu, as well for his family members, and he considered it highly important in its effect on his political future,” the indictment said.
The Washington Post adds:
He [Netanyahu] allegedly intervened to smooth the way for a merger sought by Shaul Elovitch, then the majority shareholder of Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications company, in exchange for favorable coverage on the popular news website Walla, also owned by Elovitch. Walla reporters and editors have described being ordered to spike stories, tweak headlines and change photographs in ways that boosted Netanyahu’s image.
Haaretz describes Case 2000:
…A series of meetings between Netanyahu and the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth daily newspaper, Arnon Mozes, in which they…discussed a bribery deal. According to the indictment, the deal called for Netanyahu to try to limit the circulation of rival newspaper Israel Hayom, and in return Mozes would give Netanyahu favorable coverage. In this case, Netanyahu is accused of fraud and breach of trust.
We can see that two of the three cases involved plotting to obtain favorable media coverage. Netanyahu, his wife and son, Yair are obsessed with their image in the media. The Israeli leader believes that his portrayal and masterful exploitation of the media is central to his political success. He even boasted that Israel Hayom, Bibiton, “made” him prime minister thanks to the $40-million yearly Sheldon Adelson invested in it.
Neither Mozes nor Netanyahu trusted the other, and the plan was never carried out. But as we see in the Trump impeachment, merely conspiring to engage in an act of bribery is a crime. It is not dependent on carrying out the actual bribery arrangement.
Netanyahu is also accused of fraud and breach of trust over gifts he allegedly received from Hollywood Mogul Arnon Milchan and billionaire James Packer. According to the indictment, Netanyahu received cigars and champagne from the two over the course of several years. Netanyahu’s family members, the indictment states, also demanded and received gifts from the businessmen, and Netanyahu was aware of this fact.
The gifts also included front row seats to Mariah Carey concerts and stays by Yair Netanyahu in Packer’s penthouse suite. The total value of these gifts amounts to $260,000. In return, Milchan sought Netanyahu’s intervention with the U.S. government which was balking at renewing his 10-year U.S. residence visa. The PM did lobby John Kerry to intervene, which he did. And Milchan did receive the visa.
Netanyahu has responded to the charges in his typical histrionic fashion, calling them “an attempted coup.” It’s worth remembering that Mandelblit is a former Bibi protégé, and was once his cabinet secretary. The PM also named him to his current post. Undoubtedly, the former was expecting loyalty when he most needed it– and feels betrayed. But the idea that Netanyahu’s hand-picked attorney general would be mounting a coup against him indicates just how narcissistic and paranoid the Israeli leader is.
Bibi also called the police and state prosecutors “corrupt,” though he hasn’t explained what specific benefit they’re obtaining from indicting him. It is ironic that a PM charged with bribery and corruption is flinging the same charge against his accusers. At this rate, most of Israel tunes out Bibi’s overwrought scenery-chewing. But the Israeli leader does make a political virtue out of self-pity:
“I give my life for our country. I fought for this country; I was injured for this country. I have been fighting for this country in recent years, both on the international stage and here in order to make us a global force. And I am very proud of our achievements.”
Bibi’s strategy in addressing his accusers is precisely the same as Trump’s: attack them and turn them into the story. Put them on the defensive and make the world feel that they are in the dock instead of him. So far the approach has worked for both. But there may only be so far you can take it before it wears on the body politic and finally fails.
Though the three indictments are unprecedented for a sitting Israeli prime minister, Israel is by no means rid of him yet. The Knesset may grant immunity to its members charged with crimes if it determines the acts were committed as part of their government service. That means Mandelblit must submit the indictment to Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a Likud-settler leader. Edelstein is then supposed to convey the matter to a Knesset committee for deliberation, after which the full body votes on whether to grant immunity.
Since the current government is barely functioning and no Knesset committees are meeting, Edelstein cannot do that. It means that it’s very possible the Knesset will not take up the immunity matter until an election provides a functioning government, which may take the matter beyond the next election. This, of course, defeats Mandelblit’s purpose in bringing the indictment forward. If Netanyahu faced such indictments and the prospect of an imminent trial, it would very likely impact the election results and perhaps offer a way out of the impasse that has resulted in the two most recent elections. Now, that is unlikely to happen and Israel is faced with the prospect of yet a third indecisive result.
Even if Bibi fell, even if Blue and White formed a government, it’s important to remember that there is no left or even centrist alternative to the nationalist agenda. Every Jewish party is rejectionist and refuses any significant compromise, territorial or otherwise. There is no real possibility for peace amongst all these parties. They’re Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle- Dum.
It seems unlikely that the PM’s Likud Party will rebel and oust him from power. Though there are rivals like Gideon Saar waiting in the wings for their opportunity. So far, it seems unlikely that the Blue and White opposition will accept a coalition with a PM tainted by a criminal indictment. Avigdor Lieberman is the wild card holding critical votes that could put either one in power. But he too is holding those cards close to his chest. Stay tuned. And be prepared for what could be a wild ride.
To quote Stan Laurel: “It’s a fine mess you’ve gotten us into, Ollie!”