JERUSALEM (Feb. 24)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political life as a police inquiry into the short-lived appointment of an attorney general reaches its climax.
The premier seems prepared to sacrifice political supporters and aides in his bid to stay afloat. An ominous gap appeared to open this week between him and a longtime ally, Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi.
Political observers, meanwhile, ponder the government’s future even if Netanyahu manages to escape criminal charges as a result of the police investigation into the appointment last month of Roni Bar-On as attorney general.
Some feel that the moral and ethical aspects of the affair could yet bring the Netanyahu government down. Others maintain that the prime minister could tough it out.
The investigation centers on the Cabinet’s Jan. 10 appointment of Bar-On, a Jerusalem lawyer and veteran Likud activist, to replace Michael Ben-Yair, who had announced his resignation in December.
Bar-On’s tenure lasted for 48 hours. He resigned Jan. 12 amid widespread criticism that he lacked the professional and personal qualifications to serve as Israel’s top law enforcement official.
Two weeks later, the Cabinet unanimously approved District Judge Elyakim Rubinstein as Israel’s attorney general.
The Bar-On appointment blossomed into a full-fledged scandal after state-owned Channel One Television shook the nation with a report that Bar-On was picked as part of a deal to provide a plea bargain to one of Netanyahu’s political allies, Shas Knesset member Aryeh Deri, who is on trial for corruption.
In turn, Deri allegedly promised his party’s support for the Hebron agreement, which was coming up for Cabinet approval at the time, the television report said.
All concerned staunchly deny the allegations.
But Deri has admitted that he was involved in promoting Bar-On’s appointment, and in thwarting Netanyahu’s preferred choice, Dan Avi-Yitzhak, who was Deri’s defense attorney.
Another political activist on trial for fraud, building contractor David Appel, also has admitted that he played a key role in getting Bar-On nominated.
Since the television report, Avi-Yitzhak has become a key figure in the drama. Last week, he quit as Deri’s attorney, publicly accusing the leader of the fervently Orthodox Sephardi Shas Party of “planning” Bar-On’s appointment. In the process, Avi-Yitzhak gave substance to at least part of the report.
Among the new shocks this week was a report that when Netanyahu was interrogated last week, senior police detectives formally advised him of his rights — a procedure followed when the person under questioning is formally suspected of having committed a crime.
Within days after the police interview, Netanyahu hired top criminal lawyer Ya’acov Weinroth to represent him.
On Monday, police interviewed the president of the Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, seeking to establish what precisely he said to Hanegbi when the justice minister told him that he was planning to nominate Bar-On as attorney general.
Netanyahu and Hanegbi seemed widely at odds as to what Barak said, what Hanegbi understood, what Hanegbi told the prime minister and what was subsequently related to the Cabinet.
On Monday, Weinroth seemed deliberately to deepen the divide by suggesting publicly that Hanegbi, too, should get a lawyer.
The justice minister retorted that he did not need one and that he is confident that his own testimony to the police will stand him in good stead. “I cannot disclose its substance,” he told reporters. “But I stand behind every word of it.”
If the premier is charged, it could be for breach of trust by a public servant.
Hanegbi could face additional charges of misrepresentation relating to his reporting of Barak’s opinion of the Bar-On appointment.
Both, along with other officials, could conceivably face a conspiracy count – - if the police establish that Bar-On’s nomination was indeed intended to confer legal benefits on someone facing trial — and if the State Prosecutor’s Office resolves that this is indeed a criminal offense.
State Prosecutor Edna Arbel said Sunday that she hoped the inquiry would end within a week or two.
Weinroth said Monday that there was “no chance” that Netanyahu would face criminal charges.
Within Netanyahu’s Likud Party, there was a dutiful closing of ranks this week around the beleaguered prime minister.
Party spokesmen sought to counterattack on his behalf, accusing the opposition of exploiting the situation for crude political gain at a time when the police inquiry was still not finished.
In the broader governing coalition, too, there were public expressions of solidarity with the prime minister, condemnations of the opposition and of media leaks, and calls on the public to show patience pending the conclusion of the inquiry.
But none of Netanyahu’s Cabinet colleagues issued a statement expressing an unreserved belief in the prime minister’s integrity.
Several ministers, on the other hand, seemed to make a point of telling reporters that they would resign if the premier were tainted by the inquiry.
Behind the public facade of solidarity, there were expressions inside the Likud this week of profound dismay in the premier.
Dissent within the Likud was exacerbated by a scathing interview in the weekend Ma’ariv by former Primer Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who accused Netanyahu of betraying the party’s principles in his peace policy.
Shamir made it clear that he regrets the party’s choice of Netanyahu as his successor, though he did not suggest specifically who would better fit the bill.
In the Labor Party, meanwhile, a spat broke out this week between Secretary- General Nissim Zvilli, who called on the party faithful to “prepare for early elections,” and the frontrunner for the party’s leadership position, Ehud Barak.
While the Bar-On Affair was “terrifying even if it is only half-true,” Barak said, Labor would be best advised to keep silent while the legal process takes its course.
Behind the scenes in Labor, there are fears among Barak’s many followers that Netanyahu, in distress, might turn to former Prime Minister Shimon Peres and offer him a government of national unity — and that Peres might agree.
Barak has consistently opposed the unity scenario, and is even more determined now to prevent it.
Another possibility troubling the Barak camp is that if Netanyahu falls and early elections are declared, Peres may run again for the Labor leadership.
Some Laborites note that Peres has pledged not to stand for premier in the year 2000, when the next elections would normally be held.
But that might leave the way open, at least in Peres’ own book, to his running again in 1997.
The Barak supporters believe that only he could defeat an attractive Likud candidate.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, urged Labor aspirants “not to sew your suits so quickly.”
He says he intends to be prime minister for his full years “and then for four more after that.”