AUGUST 24, 2017 – JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is legally beleaguered. He’s under direct investigation in two separate corruption cases and linked to two more, at least one of which might ultimately suck him in. To make matters worse, members of his immediate family have legal woes of their own.
Netanyahu has been down in the polls, and it’s clear that the investigations have played a role. Irked by the fact that few members of his Likud Party in Knesset and even those in his cabinet have publicly come to his defense, he channeled his Donald Trump and staged what amounted to an election rally, having his most loyal troops organize a public gathering of support by some 3,000 faithful who were bused in to cheer him on.
“The State of Israel is experiencing a time of unprecedented political prosperity. The flow of visits to Israel and the flow of invitations for me to go overseas are unprecedented. India, China, the United States and Africa, every continent, countless countries,” he told his enthusiastic audience on the evening of Aug. 9 at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds.
“Both the left and the media – and they are the same thing – know this,” he went on. “So they are now involved in an unprecedented, obsessive witch hunt against me and against my family with the goal of achieving a coup against the government. Their aim is to put false, nonstop pressure on the legal system to get an indictment at any price, without any connection to the truth, without any connection to justice.”
What’s eating at Benjamin Netanyahu to the point where he’s conjuring up talk of conspiracies, as if the police (led by a man he had a role in choosing), the Justice Ministry (led by a member of his coalition), and the attorney general (again, a man he had a role in appointing) are actually succumbing to “non-stop pressure” from certain quarters?
“The media, and the left, which serves it … invent an infinite number of affairs, an infinite number of headlines so that maybe, maybe, something will stick,” he continued from the podium. “If not the submarines, then the cigars; if not the cigars, then the conversations with the publisher. If not File 1000, then File 2000. If not 2000, then 3000, 4000, or 5000. They demand that the legal system give them something, it doesn’t matter what.”
Publishers? Submarines? Cigars?
Police File 1000 centers on allegations that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, have enjoyed the high life thanks to the deep pockets of wealthy people.
One of them is Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, who is said to have showered the couple with gifts ranging from expensive jewelry to fine cigars and cases of pink champagne. Much of it, if reports describing claims made by an annoyed Milchan are to be believed, was at the couple’s request.
It’s not yet clear whether Milchan or others received anything in return, but it’s against the law in Israel for officials to accept gifts beyond those considered reasonable, say, for birthdays. The gifts seemed to come year-round.
File 2000 involves Arnon Mozes, publisher of the Yediot Aharonot daily.
Yediot was the country’s best-selling newspaper until the advent of Israel Hayom, a paper bankrolled by US casino magnate Sheldon Adelson that’s firmly and even fawningly behind Netanyahu. It overtook Yediot primarily because it’s handed out for free at venues where there’s heavy pedestrian or vehicular traffic. Not only did this reduce Yediot’s circulation, it put a dent in its ad revenues.
The case alleges that during a phone call, the prime minister colluded with Mozes to obtain positive coverage in Yediot in return for limits on Israel Hayom’s circulation. A recording of the call was found in the possession of Ari Harow, who was Netanyahu’s chief of staff at the time and was being investigated for allegedly lying about having divested himself of a consulting firm.
Knowing they’d struck gold, investigators offered Harow leniency if he’d turn state’s witness not only in File 2000, but also in File 1000. (It’s said that if anyone knows about the nexus between Netanyahu’s public and personal lives, it’s Harow.) The US-born ex-aide reportedly flipped in return for six months of community service and a fine equaling about $200,000.
File 3000 is less about Netanyahu and more about his cousin and personal lawyer, David Shimron.
According to an e-mail obtained from the Defense Ministry by Israel’s Channel 10 news, Shimron tried to steer a multibillion-dollar Navy contract for submarines and other warships to the German super-firm ThyssenKrupp, whose representative in Israel was a Shimron client. He did so by saying that this had been “requested by the prime minister.”
Like Harow, Shimron’s client turned state’s witness – in his case after being suspected of such crimes as fraud and money laundering. His consolation? A relatively lenient sentence of a year in prison and the equivalent of a $2.8 million fine. The media reported him as having told investigators that Shimron’s cut would be 20 percent of his own fee, which would run into tens of millions of dollars.
So far, there’s no word on whether Netanyahu might have benefited from the deal, if at all, but it’s an ongoing investigation.
File 4000 is a bit more removed from the prime minister, but it involves an ex-aide who later, as director-general of the Communications Ministry – where Netanyahu was also acting minister – is alleged to have given the go-ahead for the country’s biggest phone company to buy shares of a satellite TV provider in a deal that lined pockets, including those of some with ties to the prime minister.
As for the File 5000 that Netanyahu mockingly mentioned during his pep rally, there is none – at least that we yet know about. But an indictment is hanging over the head of Sara Netanyahu for allegedly purchasing private goods and services with state funds earmarked for the official prime minister’s residence. In addition, Yair Netanyahu, Benjamin and Sara’s 26-year-old son, is being sued for allegedly defaming a liberal nonprofit organization that had called him out for poor behavior, including an obscene gesture aimed at a neighbor who complained that he had failed to clean up after the family dog in a local park.
These are not easy times for the prime minister. His usual response to queries about the investigations has been a derisive “There will be nothing because there was nothing.” But the closely choreographed Aug. 9 rally shows that the ante has indeed been upped.
“I thank you all,” he told his supporters, “for your tremendous support for me and my beloved wife, Sara, who has stood with me all along the way. … You’ve strengthened us with [more] support and love than I can remember, and I’ve been in this place for many years already. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
More such rallies are in the offing. The prime minister is feeling the squeeze, and it shows.
Lawrence Rifkin is a journalist and writer living in Jerusalem.