With a highly detailed 57-page document, Israeli Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit last week announced his intention to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The charges are fraud and breach of trust in three cases of alleged influence peddling, and in the last of these cases, the additional and much graver charge of bribery.
The first case involves two billionaires and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts, allegedly in return for bureaucratic favors from the prime minister that may or may not have borne fruit. The charges are probably just as embarrassing as they are serious, the gifts involving expensive cigars, pink champagne and other freebies, shoring up reports that Netanyahu and his family are avid fans of the high life, especially if it’s on someone else’s dime.
The second case involves Arnon Mozes, publisher of the Yediot Aharonot daily. Yediot was the undisputed king of the country’s newspapers. But then Sheldon Adelson, the US-based casino magnate, Republican mega-donor and Netanyahu backer, came along and launched a blatantly pro-Netanyahu daily, Yisrael Hayom, and began aggressively distributing it – for free – at commercial centers and major intersections, taking a huge bite out of Yediot’s revenues.
In a series of meetings and phone calls between Netanyahu and Mozes, the prime minister was said to have indicated a willingness to ask Adelson to start charging for his paper if Mozes were to promise to give the prime minister more favorable coverage. Nothing came of it, but as with the first case, there was sufficient smoke for a recommendation of indictments.
The last case might as well be called a three-alarm blaze.
Like the second, it involves a communications tycoon and a quest by Netanyahu for positive press coverage. But unlike that and the first case, the investigation found what seems to have been a clear situation of quid pro quo, with Netanyahu allegedly dictating the coverage he wanted, and the tycoon enjoying bureaucratic benefits that earned or saved him some $500 million on his investment portfolio. It was this that brought the recommendation that in the final case, Netanyahu be indicted for bribery in addition to just fraud and breach of trust.
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IT’S IMPORTANT to emphasize that Mandelblit has merely announced his intention to indict Netanyahu. Actual indictments can come only after the prime minister and his lawyers are given a hearing at which they can present evidence of their own and try to convince the attorney-general to change his mind. Yet legal experts say there’s little if any chance that Mandelblit will be swayed, and unless there’s some kind of plea deal – for example, Netanyahu agrees to leave public life in return for having the files closed – the prime minister could face jail time.
At the moment, though, all of this is of relatively little importance. That’s because on April 9, Israelis go to the polls for a national election.
Elections were not supposed to take place until November, but Netanyahu moved them forward, citing political instability in his shrinking coalition. Yet clearheaded observers, not needing to invoke much cynicism, say Netanyahu’s true goal was to get himself reelected before Mandelblit could wade through all the arguments involved in the police recommendations for a trial and before he could construct the outline for a carefully weighed and crafted case that would have a serious chance of prevailing in a court of law.
But it turns out that the attorney-general is a quick study, and his no-nonsense decision is actually the second installment in a one-two punch that stands a good chance of dethroning Netanyahu politically.
The first punch came with the recent appearance on the political scene of a former IDF chief of staff with battle-tested toughness yet a gentle, almost unassuming demeanor. Benny Gantz has captured the imagination of centrists who in the past had voted for Netanyahu but have since tired of his arrogance and overbearing ways, as well as his blithe willingness to play large swaths of the population against one other.
Gantz’s Israel Resilience party has attracted people not only from the Center, but also from the moderate Left and even the moderate Right to the point where another potentially powerful centrist party saw it prudent to join him in a merger, further strengthening him. The upshot was opinion polls concluding that Gantz’s juggernaut was closing in on Netanyahu and his Likud. (Possibly helping these numbers was the panicked political blessing the prime minister gave a right-wing fringe party whose racist plank is beyond the pale for the vast majority of Israelis – not to mention American Jews – and even for many of those Israelis who are firmly on the Right.)
But now, with Mandelblit’s recommendation for an indictment, Gantz’s numbers have surged to the point where some polls have placed his party beyond the Likud in potential Knesset seats, and Gantz himself ahead of Netanyahu in his stature as a leader, something that for the prime minister has been unheard of in these parts for many years. Even if the Likud still garners the most votes and Netanyahu is given a chance to form the next government, there are rising doubts as to whether some of the parties that normally could be expected to fall into his arms would now want to be part of a government led by a man who just took a giant step closer to jail.
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THE PRIME MINISTER, though, at least outwardly, is having none of it. While his immediate predecessor saw a coming indictment for corruption and resigned (he eventually went to jail), the law says that a leader has to step down only once he or she has been convicted, and Netanyahu, for the time being, is doubling down.
The prime minister and his considerable base have been relying on something of a conspiracy theory, howling that the Left and the media somehow coerced the national police commissioner and now the attorney-general – both Netanyahu appointees and neither considered politically liberal – to somehow turn into bleeding hearts almost overnight. They’re also breathlessly painting Gantz as a closet leftist possessing even less of a spine.
The goal is not to soften Mandelblit’s resolve in the pre-indictment hearing, where the outcome could take many months. It’s more immediate: It’s to convince wavering voters that the Left and the media – virtual enemies of the state as far as an increasingly desperate Netanyahu is concerned – are as nefarious as they come, and that Gantz is no different.
The jury – the political one, that is – should be back with a verdict by April 10.
Lawrence Rifkin is the Journal’s Jerusalem bureau chief.