With Trump-like defiance, Bibi says he’s a victim of conspiracies. But when a key aide turns state’s evidence, ‘It’s like taking a fly off the wall and putting him on the stand.’
TEL AVIV, Israel—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been in power for eight years, and has won three straight elections—a lifetime, and near-impossible feat, in a country famous for its fractious politics. Combined with his first term as prime minister in the 1990s, Netanyahu is Israel’s second-longest serving premier, closing in on the state’s legendary founder, David Ben-Gurion.
Israelis can be forgiven, then, for finding it hard to remember what political life was like before Netanyahu, or imagining what it might be like after him. Yet that’s exactly what many are doing right now. Embroiled in multiple corruption investigations dating to last year, Netanyahu’s unperturbed façade suffered a major crack this past Friday when his former chief-of-staff-turned-state’s witness against him.
Many are now priming Netanyahu’s political obituary, and with reason. But writing off the long-serving premier at this juncture would be premature. Israel’s legal system will likely require months to process what is unfolding, and it may throw up some surprises yet. More importantly, Israel’s political system will arguably be the real arbiter of whether Netanyahu stays or goes. It’s an arena that, for years, has bent to Netanyahu’s will.
A tidal wave of evidence, witnesses, and allegations has washed over the prime minister since last December when he officially became a suspect in two corruption probes. The drip-drip of leaks, often verbatim from the police investigations to the media, has put Netanyahu on the defensive; embattled would put it mildly.
To add to the incremental deluge, there are at least three more police investigations ongoing that touch on Netanyahu in some way but where he is not, the authorities stress, a suspect: one involving the misuse of public funds by his wife, Sara; another involving a close Netanyahu confidant—the director general of the communications ministry—and sweetheart deals given to the local telecommunications giant (owned by a wealthy Netanyahu friend); and a third involving the purchase by the Israeli navy of a slew of German-made vessels and submarines, a deal allegedly tainted by corruption that already has one state’s witness ready to testify against Netanyahu’s personal lawyer/cousin as well as a former national security adviser.
The atmospherics and headlines all look bad—“too much smoke for there not to be a fire,” as one Israeli pundit put it—yet in point of fact, Netanyahu’s legal position hasn’t changed all that much, experts here say. The prime minister is still only a direct suspect in the two original cases.
In the first, “Case 1000” as the police call it, Netanyahu is alleged to have received expensive gifts—possibly including high-end cigars, champagne, and jewelry totaling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars—from wealthy businessmen such as Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer. The suspicion is that, if there was a quo for all this lavish quid, then the prime minister could face conflict of interest, breach of trust, fraud, and outright bribery charges. Netanyahu, for his part, hasn’t denied that the gift-giving took place, saying that it’s legal to receive gifts from close “family friends.”
The second case, “Case 2000,” is a straight favor-trading gambit and corruption probe between Netanyahu and the publisher of Yediot Aharonot, a local mass-circulation daily. Recordings surfaced of conversations between the prime minister and the publisher negotiating better coverage for Netanyahu in return for legislation and other moves favorable to Yediot’s bottom line. Netanyahu says the deal was clearly never consummated: Yediot’s fervently anti-Netanyahu editorial line remained, and legislation meant to diminish the power of a rival daily (owned by yet another billionaire Netanyahu friend, Sheldon Adelson) was never passed.
The recordings, however, were where Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, entered the scene. The Los Angeles-born Harow had been embroiled in his own corruption case, after claiming he had sold his political consulting firm upon his return to public service (he hadn’t). The recordings of Netanyahu and the publisher were by chance found on Harow’s phone in the course of this separate investigation. Facing bribery, fraud, breach of trust, and money laundering charges, and looking at several years in jail, Harow cut a deal—a good one. In return for his testimony against Netanyahu, and in lieu of jail time, Harow will be sentenced to six months of community service and a fine.
Harow crossing over to the other side is, in the words of one Israeli law professor, “a milestone,” one that launched a slew of media speculation in recent days about a looming indictment and the end of the Netanyahu era. Harow was, by all reports, an extremely close aide to Netanyahu and involved not only in Case 2000, where he was present to record the conversations, but also Case 1000. He will, moreover, likely be asked by investigators about the other cases mentioned above.
“It’s like taking the fly off the wall and putting him on the stand,” explained Oshri Ben-Ishai, a Tel Aviv defense attorney with professional experience dealing in both organized crime and Israeli party politics. “Harow was there, he can connect the presents to possible payoffs, and if he can show that it influenced the prime minister’s decisions then that’s clear bribery.”
Legally, though, much hinges on both the scale of the offenses and the quality of the evidence Harow lays forth. As the law professor put it, “The proportionality of the alleged crime will be key—how much money are we really talking about—as will the type of evidence: notes, recordings, etc. This all impacts how prosecutors look at his testimony and whether an indictment is filed.” Harow singing is extremely bad for Netanyahu, but it all still depends how loud and in what pitch.
Investigating, let alone indicting, a sitting prime minister is the most sensitive legal decision authorities here can take. Yet the ultimate decision on whether to indict is not in the hands of the police investigators who are currently gathering the evidence and can, unofficially, put forward their own recommendation; nor is it in the hands of the State Prosecutor’s Office, the legal body actually tasked with carrying out any future criminal case. Rather, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will be the one to decide on whether to indict.
If media scuttlebutt is to be believed, both the police and state prosecutor already are leaning toward an indictment—yet in legal terms this won’t be decisive. In 2000, the then-attorney general went against the recommendations of both and closed a major bribery and fraud case. The defendant then was a former prime minister: Benjamin Netanyahu.
Even in the best of circumstances the legal process will take months to play out. Harow is reportedly being allowed to travel back to the U.S. to gather more evidence; the police already intimated they’ll need to question Netanyahu several more times before completing their investigation; prosecutors may request follow-up clarifications; after which the case moves to the attorney general for a decision.
At this point, though, Netanyahu and his legal team will still be given a hearing to change the attorney general’s mind and provide explanations about any alleged misdeeds. The lead-up preparatory time just for this may require a few months, taking the case at the earliest to the first quarter of next year. Even under indictment, and however implausible it may seem, a prime minister doesn’t legally have to resign.
As Amit Segal, the political correspondent for Channel Two, put it, “Netanyahu is in danger, but it’s not a clear and present danger.”
For Netanyahu, the more immediate threat isn’t any sudden legal shift, but rather the collapse of his political and public position. In this, the fate of his immediate predecessor as premier, Ehud Olmert, is instructive.
In 2008, with multiple police investigations already swirling around him, Olmert was undone when one key witness’ testimony describing envelopes stuffed with cash went public. The resulting political furor, especially from Olmert’s erstwhile party allies, forced Olmert to resign–crucially, even before an indictment was handed down.
“Like now, it was the accumulation of the [police] cases,” said the lawyer, Ben-Ishai, who back then was active in Olmert’s party. “A prime minister can’t conduct his business under an endless stream of investigations, which is why it’s very important for Netanyahu to project an image of ‘business as usual.’”
This Netanyahu has done, with varying degrees of assurance. His mantra about the police investigations heard from the start—“There will be nothing because there was nothing”—is beginning to fray with each close aide implicated in the myriad cases.
A harried-looking Netanyahu took to Facebook late Friday after news of Harow’s defection broke, posting a video where he mentioned a host of other issues—a terror victim, West Bank settlement construction, African diplomacy, the security forces. “I want to tell you, the citizens of Israel,” he then concluded, “I don’t pay attention to background noise. I continue to work for you.”
More perniciously though, Netanyahu and his allies have since the start dismissed the allegations as a vast left-wing conspiracy—by the media and in some cases the police as well—to remove a Likud prime minister from power; to do via the courts what they repeatedly can’t do at the ballot box. “There has been nothing like it in the history of the state,” Netanyahu said earlier this year, and with a Trumpian flourish added: “It’s doubtful there was anything similar in the history of other democratic countries.”
If one recent poll is to be believed, the public remains unconvinced: 51 percent responded that they did not believe the prime minister’s position (versus 27 percent who said they did), and an overwhelming 66 percent said that in the event of an indictment, Netanyahu should resign.
Members of the governing coalition seem to agree with the second sentiment: There is no indictment, Netanyahu is innocent until proven guilty, and a premier isn’t toppled, in the words of one Likud party minister, “based on headlines in the media, opposition demonstrations, and incomplete investigations.” Tellingly, key ministers did come out in support of the police and attorney general, saying they had confidence in their professionalism.
The question remains what happens to this political support in the twilight period before a possible indictment is (or isn’t) handed down.
How will the public respond to salacious leaks from Harow’s testimony once a court-mandated gag order is lifted next month? Will the pro-Netanyahu political line hold firm even if the police go public with their (likely) recommendation to indict? What happens inside the Likud if Gideon Sa’ar, a former interior minister, returns to political life? (The same poll above had the party gaining more seats under his leadership than Netanyahu’s.) Already, one Netanyahu mouthpiece, David Bitan, a bulldog doing a poor impersonation of a parliamentarian, has threatened to “settle scores” with any Likud member not supportive enough of their leader.
The more serious concern, only whispered at, is what Netanyahu may say or do to hold on to power.
“We’re talking here about a prime minister buried up to his neck in investigations. He has no moral or public mandate to decide such fateful things for the State of Israel, because there exists the fear, I have to say real and not unfounded, that he’ll make decisions based on personal interests for his own political survival and not for the national interest.”
Benjamin Netanyahu said that about his predecessor when calling for him to resign, nine years and a political lifetime ago.
*Neri Zilber is research associate at the Rubin Center, focusing on Middle East politics and culture. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.