Views and analysis on the Netanyahu indictment decision

Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu with Israel's Attorney General Avishai Mandelblit, who has just made a decision to indict Netanyahu for fraud, bribery and breach of trust in three criminal cases, pending a hearing

Update from AIJAC

 

Update 03/19 #01

This Update is devoted to analysis and opinion on the announcement by Israeli Attorney-General Avishai Mandelblit that he intends to indict Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for fraud, bribery and breach of trust in three criminal cases, pending a hearing.

AIJAC has already published a fact-sheet on this news, which summaries the charges and the three cases, the legal process and legal uncertainties from this point forward, and the potential political implications for the Israeli election campaign, leading up to a national vote on April 9. This Update is intended to supplement that document, and does not repeat the background it provides, so we strongly urge readers to read the fact-sheet first. (Readers wanting more details on the specifics of the charges, see this summary from the Times of Israel. Those wanting more details on the legal process and questions going forward should see this briefing from BICOM.)

We lead with general comments about the indictment from the always judicious Israeli columnist and political analyst Shmuel Rosner. Rosner makes a number of important points, including that the indictment announcement was no surprise, that the basic issue in dispute is whether gifts from friends or positive media coverage can be seen as bribes, and Netanyahu’s response has been targeted more toward winning the election than avoiding charges. Finally, he notes that both the public reaction and the political fallout for the next Israeli coalition government remains very unclear at this point. For Rosner’s able description of the big picture in the wake of the indictment announcement,  CLICK HERE.

Next up, we offer a pointed but thoughtful analysis from David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel. Horovitz especially focusses his comments on Netanyahu’s two key claims in response to the indictment – that he is the victim of a witch-hunt by left-wing elements of the media and police force, and it was inherently unfair for Mandelblit to announce indictments in the midst of an election campaign.  Horovitz is sceptical of both claims, and, like Rosner, suggests that Netanyahu’s main focus remains the electoral campaign – but that he almost certainly will have a years-long legal battle to face in the aftermath, win or lose. For Horovitz’s complete argument,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, we bring readers the views of Jonathan Tobin, head of the Jewish News Syndicate and American columnist with very strong credentials for covering Israeli politics. In contrast to Horovitz, Tobin is highly sceptical of both the charges and of Mandelblit’s decision to announce indictments in the midst of an election campaign and sympathetic to Netanyahu’s tough response to the indictment announcement. However, Tobin does argue that Netanyahu may have contributed to his current predicament though both an extravagant lifestyle and an increasingly high-handed attitude after such a long period in power. For the rest of what Tobin has to say, CLICK HERE.

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Seven Comments on the Indictment of Netanyahu

BY SHMUEL ROSNER 

Shaul Elovitch, Feb 28, 2019

The key players in the three cases for which it is being recommended Netanyahu be indicted: Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan (left); Newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes (top right); and media tycoon Shaul Elovitch (bottom right). All three also face charges. 

On Feb. 28 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Here are seven comments about the indictment:

1. No jaw dropped Feb. 28, when the most anticipated political event of the season finally materialized. The Attorney General decided to indict Prime Minister Netanyahu, pending a hearing, for bribery and other misdeeds. The legal process is slow and is going to keep moving forward. It could take months until a hearing takes place, and then a final decision is made, and an indictment filed. It could take years for the court to do what courts do, including appeals.

2. The AG case is simple: Netanyahu received gifts and gave something in return. With some wealthy people, it was cigars and whiskey. With others, positive media coverage. In some instances, it worked, and a deal was completed. In other cases, it was an unsuccessful attempt to have a deal. There was no money involved. The gifts could be seen as friendly gestures – cigars – and are often hard to quantify – a positive news item. Netanyahu argues that these are routine exchanges between a politician and his supporters, or the media.

3. The Prime Minister made a speech to the public tonight. His goal is not to persuade the legal establishment; his goal, for now, is to win decisively in the coming election. Such a win could reshuffle the cards. It could give the AG a pause before making a final decision.

Netanyahu’s primary electoral rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, speaking on February 28, announcing he will not sit in a Netanyahu-led government while Netanyahu is under indictment. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)

4. Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz, also made a speech. He vowed not to sit with Netanyahu in the same government. The option of a unity government is dead. That is, unless the leadership of the Likud Party moves to unseat Netanyahu – an unlikely scenario in case of decisive election victory; a more likely scenario if Gantz victory is decisive.

5. We don’t yet know how the public feels about the indictment. It will take a few days, and a few polls, to see if the needle of political support has moved. Netanyahu might lose votes – if the public feels uncomfortable with him. He might gain – if his base is convinced that the PM is being framed. Or maybe, nothing will change. Maybe the public already factored in the expected indictment in the polls that were issued in the last couple of weeks.

6. And remember, support for Netanyahu is important, but those wanting to unseat him need the votes not just to move away from Likud but also to move in a certain direction. There needs to be a change in the balance between the blocs.

7. A Prime Minister is accused of bribery. This is not a happy day for Israel.


Netanyahu’s legal war will wait; it’s his political life he’s fighting for now

The PM’s urgent priority, now that the AG has announced the intention to indict him, is to persuade enough of the public that he still should — and still can — run the country

By DAVID HOROVITZ

Times of Israel, 28 February 2019

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on May 28, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

For the first time in the history of Israel, a serving prime minister was informed by the state legal hierarchy on Thursday that he is to be indicted for criminal offenses.

To look at the glass half full, the case indicates that Israel has a robust and independent law enforcement and legal hierarchy, capable of investigating even the prime minister to ensure that all are subject to the law and equal before the law. To look at the glass half empty, the case means that after a former prime minister and a former president went to jail for criminal activities, a serving prime minister will now be put on trial unless he is able, in the course of the hearing process to which he is entitled, to persuade the attorney general to reconsider.

Benjamin Netanyahu insists that he has committed no crime. He claims to be the victim of a political witch hunt led by the left-wing opposition, left-wing media and a biased police force — all relentlessly pressuring Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a man he appointed to the role but now describes as “weak.”

The presumption of innocence is emphatically with him. It will now be legally tested.

But Netanyahu essentially argues that Mandelblit, in the very act of announcing the intention to indict, has now already denied him the political presumption of innocence, and in so doing has skewed the elections. The attorney general has had his say, runs Netanyahu’s assertion, but since the hearing process cannot possibly be completed by the time Israel votes on April 9, the prime minister’s side of the argument will not be comparably known.

Attorney-General Avishai Mandelblit’s decision, announced in early January, to proceed with an announcement about the indictment before the April 9 election has been controversial.

This is a tendentious claim: For one thing, Netanyahu has taken great pains, including via live TV broadcast, to present central aspects of his defense to the public. For another, it was he who chose to bring elections forward from their scheduled date in November.

But it is not a claim to be casually dismissed. A darker shadow does indeed now hang over Netanyahu. Until Thursday, it was widely reported that he would face charges of bribery and breach of trust in the investigations against him. But now, the reported allegations have become allegations formally advanced, after two years of investigation and evaluation, by the guardians of Israeli law enforcement.

Coming so soon before the public goes to the polls to elect its next government, the official announcement patently impacts the elections. Whether it unfairly skews them is quite another matter. A counter argument can be advanced that not making the announcement, that not informing the public of allegations sufficiently well-founded as to merit an indictment, would have been a far graver abuse of democracy.

Mandelblit has elected to move toward charges with every awareness of the inherent shattering political consequence

Netanyahu now finds himself with a legal mountain to climb. Initially, the prime minister must seek to marshal a defense so credible as to convince Mandelblit — who has overseen the entire investigation, and has elected to move toward charges with every awareness of the inherent shattering political consequence — that he is wrong. That he has misunderstood. That there is no case to answer.

Suspects have achieved turnarounds in the hearing process. But it seems wildly improbable in this case, given Mandelblit’s central familiarity with the evidence, and given the concern and caution with which he must have weighed that evidence in deciding to proceed.

If Netanyahu fails to deter Mandelblit, the battle will then move to the courts, and a years-long legal process will ensue.

But the protracted legal battle at the heart of this affair is not the prime minister’s urgent priority. First, there is the political battle — to see off opposition calls for his resignation and to persuade his colleagues, many of them potential rivals, that he remains an asset, a vote-winner, the leader who will secure their political good fortune. To persuade them, in short, that despite the announcement or even because of it, he will secure re-election. Ehud Olmert, it should be recalled, was forced to step down as prime minister in 2008 before an indictment had been served against him — because he had become a political liability. Olmert only went to jail, at the end of an exhaustive legal process, a full eight years later.

Opinion polls indicate that Netanyahu has retained significant personal political popularity throughout the investigation. The Times of Israel’s own latest election poll, carried out this week in the run-up to Mandelblit’s announcement, still found him neck-and-neck with his new rival Benny Gantz as Israelis’ preferred prime minister.

His political challenge in the next few weeks will be to retain that popularity including, crucially, by convincing voters that he is entirely capable of running the country and simultaneously mounting his legal defense.

If support for Likud begins to ebb away, as the ToI poll suggested it will, Netanyahu the politician will be in deep trouble. And then, however improbable this may sound in a country where the words “Benjamin Netanyahu” and “prime minister” have become synonymous, Netanyahu the legal defendant could become a matter for an Israel that has moved on.

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The Netanyahu indictments: unfair and inevitable

The charges against the prime minister set an unfortunate precedent in more ways than one. Here are four takeaways from the charges against him

Jonathan Tobin 

JNS, February 28, 2019

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foes are cheering. The prime minister’s critics weren’t able to defeat him at the ballot box over the course of his current 10-year run in power. But regardless of the merits of the accusations or the appropriateness of the announcement just weeks before the next national elections, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s announcement that he will charge Netanyahu with wrongdoing in three separate cases may well put an end to the prime minister’s long political career.

The formation of a new centrist coalition—the Blue and White Party, under the leadership of former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz—had already called into question whether Netanyahu’s Likud Party would win on April 9. But with three indictments hanging over his head and the likelihood that if Netanyahu wins, a sitting premier would be put on trial sometime during the term of the next Knesset, the case for change just got that much stronger.

There are four main takeaways from the announcement.

  • The first is that Netanyahu must take some responsibility for putting Israel in such an unfortunate situation through his arrogance and sense of entitlement.
  • The second is that the corruption allegations are, in fact, highly questionable, and it’s hard to believe they can be sustained in a fair court of law.
  • The third is that the process that led to indictments on the eve of an election after years of discussion and investigation was deeply flawed.
  • The fourth is that while Netanyahu is certainly down, he’s by no means out.

The first point to be considered is that while the prime minister and many of his supporters may consider him to be irreplaceable, after a decade leading the country, he has clearly overstayed his welcome.

Binyamin and Sara Netanyahu: Their luxurious lifestyle and high-handed manner arguably contributed to Netanyahu’s current legal trouble. 

The case for term limits for leaders of nations is persuasive. The charges against the prime minister, even if they should never have been pursued as a criminal matter, speak to a certain arrogance and sense of entitlement that is inevitable when the occupant, as well as their families and underlings, start thinking they are untouchable.

That is certainly the case with Netanyahu. He’s served four terms as prime minister, including the last three in a row, and for all of his brilliance, masterminding and achievements, his act long ago starting wearing thin. The era in which Israel was run by ascetic leaders who lived and acted in a modest manner appropriate to a nation built on pioneering values—David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin wouldn’t have been caught dead accepting cigars and champagne by the caseload from wealthy admirers, as Netanyahu has done—has long been over, but that doesn’t excuse the Netanyahu clan’s often inappropriate behavior.

The alleged corruption cases all speak to Netanyahu’s high-handed manner and willingness to use his power in ways that leave him open to suggestions of wrongdoing, even if it can be argued that he did nothing illegal.

It’s also true that the “indispensable man” argument for keeping him in office is a function of Netanyahu’s unwillingness to promote allies or countenance the idea of a successor. Greater men than Netanyahu have done the same thing—Winston Churchill kept his designated successor waiting for him to retire for nearly a decade after World War II. The roster of talented people he (and reportedly, his wife Sara) has chased out of the Likud is impressive, including leaders of some of the parties that are the Likud’s coalition allies. If there is no one of stature waiting to take over the party that has ruled the country for the last decade, it’s because that’s the way the prime minister wanted it. And that’s why he has persuaded his supporters that fighting the indictments, rather than sparing the country this ordeal is necessary.

But the three cases for which he will be indicted are not the terrible crimes Netanyahu’s foes make them out to be.

The first (called Case 1000) claims that Netanyahu is guilty of fraud and breach of trust because of his acceptance of expensive gifts. While the gifts were egregious, it’s not clear what law he broke when he pocketed the champagne and cigars. Nor is there any proof of a quid pro quo that would make the gifts a bribe. All the prime minister is guilty of is having wealthy friends and a rich man’s tastes.

The second charge (Case 2000) is even more flimsy. It alleges that he committed a breach of trust by discussing a possible bargain with the head of a critical newspaper in which the publisher would give Netanyahu favorable coverage in exchange with the prime minister supporting legislation that would hurt Israel Hayom, the pro-Likud newspaper owned by casino magnate and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson. Here again, Netanyahu broke no law, and since nothing came of the conversation,

it’s hard to see how he breached the public trust. The charge is also a joke because the effort to strangle Israel Hayom by the left-wing opposition parties and rival papers was itself an anti-democratic plot against freedom of the press that Netanyahu ultimately foiled.

The third charge (Case 4000) sounds more substantial since it alleges that Netanyahu traded regulatory decisions that favored the Bezeq Company in exchange for favorable coverage on its Walla news site. But since Walla remained critical of the prime minister, it’s hard to see how that constitutes actual bribery. Even if Walla had flipped to favor the Likud, there is no law that says favorable coverage is bribery.

I find it hard to believe that Netanyahu will be convicted of any of these charges, none of which would ever have been brought in an American court. The latter two charges amount to criminalizing a politician’s attempts to gain better coverage in a news media that is well-known to be overwhelmingly biased against him. That’s a shameful interference in the political process.

But whether or not you agree that these charges should never have resulted in indictments, the process that led to their announcement on the eve of the election is outrageous.

The police and the attorney general’s office have been investigating these charges for years. The police made their recommendations many months ago after a probe that lasted far longer than it should have. And Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit sat on his decisions, too. If indictments were in the offing, then they should have been announced months ago or held until after the election. Throwing them out now—a week after the deadline for the parties to file their lists for the election—is as much of an unconscionable intervention in the democratic process as former FBI director James Comey’s last-minute revival of the charges against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton for mishandling classified emails in the days before the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

But fair or not, the indictments and the emergence of Gantz and his new party make it seem as if Netanyahu is finally down for the count. Polls were already trending against the prime minister, and that trend may only accelerate now.

While the indictment will make winning re-election harder when Israel goes to the polls on April 9, Netanyahu’s chances should not be discounted. And even if he loses, a future comeback after beating the charges is also possible. 

Still, he’s not beaten yet. Gantz’s views remain a mystery, and the next several weeks will provide him with a tougher test of his political mettle than he’s ever experienced. And as unfair as the timing of the indictments may be, it actually reinforces the view of most center-right voters that Netanyahu is being treated unfairly. Though Gantz is a plausible alternative because his stand on the conflict with the Palestinians doesn’t seem to differ much from that of the prime minister, the center-right consensus may still feel more comfortable with Netanyahu in charge. Nor would I put it past Netanyahu to mount a comeback once he’s acquitted on all charges—something even his foes concede is more likely than not.

There’s no escaping the fact that Netanyahu’s time as prime minister may be about to end. If so, he may regret its tawdry finish, but it has still been a career filled with enormous achievements in terms of Israel’s economy and in safeguarding its security. Throwing a prime minister out of office who is widely acknowledged as having great success in this manner on such flimsy grounds sets an unfortunate precedent. As much as his enemies damned Netanyahu for standing strong against suicidal concessions on the peace process, as well as for alleged corruption, Gantz will be hard-pressed to match Netanyahu’s record. Even if the outcome of the story was inevitable, Israel will still be the poorer for losing such an able leader in this manner.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate.