It has become increasingly clear that sometime next year Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely be indicted for bribery. The police have now recommended that he be charged in three separate inquiries. On Sunday, in perhaps the strongest case against the Netanyahus announced to date, the police said that the prime minister and his wife were both implicated in a quid pro quo scheme in which Mr. Netanyahu, who was also serving as Communications Minister at the time, ensured that an unprofitable merger between Bezeq and the YES Satellite company went through in exchange for favorable coverage in the Bezeq-owned Walla! News site.
For a case supposedly involving complicated financial and regulatory procedures, the benefits for all sides look simple enough. By serving the interests of Shaul Elovitch, a significant shareholder of both YES and Bezeq, Netanyahu was able to secure positive coverage for himself and his wife on one of Israel’s most popular websites.
However, as Ido Baum writes in Ha’aretz, the alleged deal went far beyond a general directive for more positive coverage: Sara Netanyahu effectively became an editor at Walla!, sending the couple’s communications adviser Nir Hefetz to deal with the website’s CEO, Ilan Yeshua. Both Hefetz and Yeshua are now cooperating with the inquiry. Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, has also cooperated with prosecutors and police.
Case 2000, for which the police have also recommended Netanyahu be indicted, is cut from similar cloth, but somehow even more bizarre. Almost two years ago, it was reported that the police possessed audio recordings of Netanyahu and Arnon “Noni” Mozes, the publisher of the high circulation Yediot Ahronoth, negotiating an obviously illegal arrangement. Mozes had been a favorite target of the prime minister’s, who at one point accused the publisher of running “a Bolshevik campaign” against him. The tapes, which were found during a police search of Harow’s personal belongings, revealed a very different and indeed collaborative relationship between Mozes and Netanyahu.
According to the report and subsequent recommendation to indict, Netanyahu offered to acquiesce to the passage of the “Israel Hayom Law,” which would have required the Sheldon Adelson-owned freebie paper, which has consistently supported Netanyahu in a rather obsequious manner, to charge a minimum price; Mozes believed Israel Hayom was largely responsible for Yediot’s collapsing declining subscription. In return, Mozes would provide favorable coverage in his paper, including hiring more favorable columnists like Ben-Dror Yemini (although to his credit, Yemini has been a strong critic of the prime minister’s alleged corrupt dealings).
The question for Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is whether he has enough convincing evidence to indict Netanyahu. As someone with admittedly limited knowledge of the minutia of criminal justice procedures in Israel, I won’t dwell on the possibility of the case being dismissed due to a technicality or a mishandling of the evidence. And, while interesting, the internal machinations of the attorney general’s office probably won’t reveal much of substance. It’s understandable that when dealing with the potential indictment and trial of a sitting prime minister, normal procedures won’t necessarily apply.
However, the available evidence points to a corrupt pattern that will be hard to dismiss entirely. Netanyahu has not disputed the content of his conversations with Mozes, which in themselves amount to conspiracy to commit a crime, but rather put up the fantastical defense that he was performing a public service by exposing Mozes’ corruption. Besides from being an incredibly reckless act if true, it does not at all comport with Netanyahu’s political management style. He is perpetually sensitive to the moves of his adversaries, which in his mind includes the press, and would never put himself at such risk. If this was an actual Netanyahu initiated sting operation, those tapes would surely be known as the Mozes-Steinitz or Mozes-Hanegbi tapes.
In Case 4000 there is a documented conspiracy and payoff, deals in exchange for favorable government decisions that are supposed to be taken without regard for the private benefit of politicians. It was reported this week that Yeshua was told by Elovitch to destroy evidence on his phone that would prove the Netanyahus played a de facto editorial role at Walla! after the Communications Ministry become a more favorable business environment for Elovitch.
The connection between the favors and the decision will come from two witnesses who have agreed to provide evidence: Hefetz and Shlomo Filber, the former director-general of the Communications Ministry. The significance of Hefetz and Harow, two extremely close advisers, turning on Netanyahu can’t be overstated. Netanyahu was almost indicted in his first term in what was a sordid scandal that shook Israelis’ confidence in their justice system. But the decision not to indict Netanyahu was not unexpected; there was no evidence he used his office for personal enrichment or gain, or that he was helping anyone else do so. The Mozes tapes and the facts of Case 4000 paint a much uglier picture in graphic detail, and we haven’t even touched on the details of Case 1000, where Netanyahu is alleged to have pushed government favors for film mogul Arnon Milchan, who in turn sent expensive gifts. Considering the documentary evidence, witnesses involved, and corrupt pattern of behavior related to press coverage, it’s hard to imagine Netanyahu will escape indictment in all three of these cases. It appears the era of ‘Teflon Bibi’ is coming to an end.