Netanyahu Under Fire

By Susan Schwamm 

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Once again, this week Israel grabbed headlines on the front pages of papers around the world.  Over the weekend, the situation was tense as Israel downed a drone in its airspace that it claimed was Iranian.  The Jewish state then bombed an Iranian target deep in Syria in retaliation, only to have one of its F-16 fighter jets crash amid a barrage of Syrian anti-aircraft missiles.  Subsequently, Israel again hit Iranian targets near Damascus.  

Will the events over the weekend lead to an all-war with Iran and Syria?  

Israelis barely had time to grapple with the possibility of a war when more news hit the fan. Tuesday’s news may have been inevitable, but it was still a blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. 

On Tuesday, police said that they were recommending that Netanyahu be indicted for a series of corruption charges. The charges include bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.  Investigators say that they have enough evidence to bring the case to trial. Even more of a blow to the Bibi team was the ostensible key witness against the prime minister in one of the cases: political rival former finance minister Yair Lapid.  

Netanyahu faced the nation on Tuesday, mere moments after the news was announced, angrily rejecting the accusations and accusing the police of being on a witch hunt.  

“I will continue to lead the state of Israel responsibly and loyally as long as you, the citizens of Israel, choose me to lead you,” Netanyahu said in a televised address. “I am sure that the truth will come to light. And I am sure that also in the next election that will take place on time I will win your trust again, with G-d’s help.” 

Netanyahu told the nation that 15 investigations have been opened against him to “topple him from power.”  He had been interviewed by police seven times during the two year investigation. 

“They have brutally attacked my wife and children to hurt me,” Bibi said, in live remarks delivered outside his home. “This time things will end without anything. These recommendations have no place in a democratic state.” 

Reactions on Both Sides 

The two cases that are becoming flammable for Netanyahu have been dubbed Case 1000 and Case 2000.  A decision to press formal charges now rests with Attorney General Avihai Mendelblit and his office, who are expected to take months to decide how to proceed.   

During that time, Netanyahu will be able to remain in office.  It is uncertain if Netanyahu will begin to feel uncomfortable as his feet are being held to the fire and will decide to resign during the interim. During similar circumstances, a few years ago, when a string of scandals engulfed then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu, who was the opposition leader, urged Olmert to resign, saying a leader “sunk up to his neck in interrogations” could not govern properly. Olmert ultimately resigned and became the first Israeli head of government to end up in jail.  It’s doubtful if Netanyahu will heed his own advice when he’s mired in the same predicament.  

Reactions to the announcements of a looming, possible indictment were predictable. While Netanyahu furiously denied the accusations, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a bitter rival, called for him to resign.  “The depth of corruption is horrifying,” Barak said. “This does not look like nothing. This looks like bribery.” 

But key members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party rallied behind the prime minister. Cabinet Minister Miri Regev said she was “not excited” by the police recommendations and urged patience while the attorney general reviews the case. 

Regev said she was most surprised that Lapid, leader of the opposition Yesh Atid party, had been a witness. David Amsalem, another Netanyahu confidant, called Lapid a “snitch.” 

Lapid is said to have provided evidence that Netanyahu pushed for a 2008 law that gave his benefactors millions of dollars in tax breaks.  

Lapid defended himself against detractors, later calling on Netanyahu to resign. “Someone with such serious accusations against them, many of which he does not even deny, cannot continue to serve as prime minister with responsibility for the security and well-being of Israel’s citizens,” Lapid asserted. 

1000 & 2000 

According to police, Netanyahu traded favors and gifts from businessmen in exchange for the passage of laws that could benefit the businessmen financially.  Officials say that in Case 1000 they have concluded “that there is sufficient evidence against the prime minister on suspicions of the offense of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust regarding his connection with businessman Arnon Milchan, and fraud and breach of trust in connection with the Australian businessman James Packer.” 

The prime minister and his wife, Sara, are suspected of receiving gifts from billionaire benefactors in excess of NIS 1 million. It is said that Milchan gave the Netanyahus gifts worth around 750,000 shekels including expensive cigars and champagne.  Packer is said to have gifted them with items worth around 250,000 shekels. 

Milchan, who was born in Rehovot, is the third-richest Israeli in the world, worth around $5.6 billion. He is the founder of Regency Enterprises and has produced over 130 films.  Packer stands at 6-feet-6-inches tall. He is worth $3.9 billion, according to Forbes, and was the ninth richest Australian in 2017.  Packer is the son of media mogul Kerry Packer and inherited control of the family company, Consolidated Press Holdings Limited, with investments in Crown Resorts and other companies. 

In return for the lavish gifts, police say that Netanyahu helped Milchan with regards to U.S. visa matters, legislated a tax break for him, and connected him with an Indian businessman.  

According to police, Netanyahu intervened on Milchan’s behalf by calling then-Secretary of State John Kerry when Milchan was having difficulty renewing his residency visa in the United States. By intervening, and subsequently avoiding a huge loss of money for Milchan should the visa be revoked, police say that Netanyahu was paying Milchan back for his gifts.  

Netanyahu says that he came to the aid of an Israeli hero, one who served in the Mossad.  Interestingly, Shimon Peres had also been in touch with U.S. authorities on Milchan’s behalf.  

In terms of tax breaks, also known as “Milchan Law,” Amendment 168 to the Tax Ordinance is ostensibly a piece of legislation meant to encourage aliyah by Jews living abroad. It was signed into law in September 2008 by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.  The amendment grants a ten-year tax exemption on income earned abroad to new immigrants as well as to returning residents who have lived abroad for at least 10 years. In addition, the amendment gives those eligible a 10-year exemption on reporting earnings abroad.  

According to Lapid, Netanyahu sought to extend the exemption to twenty years on behalf of Milchan and Parker, for whom the tax exemptions would benefit in an extreme way. Lapid, the police’s witness, said on Tuesday that “despite all pressure against me, I refused to pass the law.” 

Ironically, Lapid is the head of the Yesh Atid party, which is set to form the next government should Netanyahu’s Likud party fail to win the next election.  

In addition, police say that Milchan and Netanyahu promoted a free trade zone near the Jordan-Israel border that personally benefited Milchan, a trade holder, and pushed for a deal to merge Israeli media outlets, one partly owned by Milchan, according to police. 

Police also recommended indicting Milchan in connection to Case 1000, citing “sufficient evidence” of suspicions of bribery.  

Case 2000 involves an alleged quid-pro-quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily paper, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.  Mozes is also in police crosshairs as police recommend him for indictment as well.  

Allegedly, Netanyahu had been in discussions with Mozes to limit the circulation of Israel Hayom – which had mostly been providing positive coverage on the prime minister – in exchange for Yediot Ahronoth – which generally had an anti-right slant – providing more flattering coverage on Netanyahu.  Both Netanyahu and Mozes say that the conversations were not serious discussions.  

From 2009 “Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes held conversations and personal meetings during which they discussed helping each other as a quid-pro-quo to advance their respective interests,” said police.  Additionally, police allege that Netanyahu offered his support for a bill to close Israel Hayom, to help shrink the newspaper’s circulation numbers and to nix the free daily’s weekend edition. The law did not pass, as the government folded and went to elections in 2015. 

Interestingly, in 2014, Tzipi Livni, who was justice minister at the time, put forward a bill, dubbed the Israel Hayom Law, which would have ultimately shut down the paper by barring its owners from charging money for it. Netanyahu and his party – contrary to what police say he “arranged” with Mozes – voted against the bill.  Eventually, Netanyahu disbanded his government, calling for new elections with just a year into his term.  

Forty-three lawmakers had voted for the Israel Hayom Law.  As of now, the police brought only one lawmaker in for questioning; the others have not been questioned.   

Smoke or Fire? 

On Tuesday, Netanyahu assured the people of Israel that the recommendations for indictments will “end with nothing” just as past scandals had all “ended with nothing.” 

Investigations are not new to the Netanyahu family. Bibi and his wife have been the subject of 19 police probes since he served his first term as prime minister starting in 1996. In 1999, police recommended indictment in three cases; the attorney general rejected their requests. Last year, in January 2017, the attorney general closed four cases against Netanyahu that had been ongoing since 2009.   

Just a few months ago, in September, the attorney general closed six police probes against Sara Netanyahu which police had opened in 2015. Sara is still being investigated in a case dubbed the “Meals Ordering Affair,” in which Sara, along with a senior official at the Prime Minister’s Office, claimed about $100,000 in catering expenses even though there were chefs employed at the prime minister’s official residence. Submitting claims for those expenses are only allowed if there are no official cooks at the residence.  

For now, the Netanyahus and the Israeli public will be looking to the attorney general’s office to see how Case 1000 and Case 2000 will end. Will Israel see their prime minister behind bars with his legacy in flames? Or will the “witch hunt” be dismantled, as Mendelblit recommends dismissal of all charges? Netanyahu and his wife are hoping to hear the rap of the gavel as the words “cases dismissed” are intoned. It may take a few months, but as Bibi pointed out, this is not the first time he’s been under fire and, just as in other times, he foresees that the cases will all end up in smoke.  

 

 

 

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