Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal woes just grew beyond questions over cigars and conversations. Now, he faces claims that big-money arrangements swayed media coverage, and even suggestions that an aide tried to bribe a judge.
On Tuesday, the Maariv newspaper reported that a Netanyahu aide is suspected of offering a judge the post of attorney general if she halted investigations into Sara Netanyahu’s household spending. Police confirmed the charge that a person was offered the attorney general position in exchange for “a future promise/agreement regarding a case,” but didn’t specify which case.
The revelation came just hours after police confirmed that two of Netanyahu’s closest associates had been arrested. They were detained as part of a new investigation that focuses, in part, on claims that Netanyahu secured more favorable coverage on a top news site by indirectly helping its finances.
Both of these developments took place in the week since police recommended Netanyahu’s indictment in other cases on Feb. 13.
The case that began as questions over cigars and other gifts that Netanyahu received from filmmaker Arnon Milchan and another businessman is now on the attorney general’s desk with a police recommendation for indictment. Netanyahu is suspected of “accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust” in relation to the Milchan gifts.
And Attorney General Avichai Mandelblitt also has a police recommendation to indict the PM on “bribery, fraud and breach of trust,” as it is claimed that he tried to cut a deal with the publisher of Yediot Achronot to improve the media coverage he receives.
Even before revelations of the new arrests, which were made on Sunday, Netanyahu was facing a din from his political opponents calling for him to resign. “There is no way to govern a country while under such heavy suspicion,” said Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party. This was an echo of Netanyahu’s own words from when a corruption scandal gathered pace against the centrist politician Ehud Olmert — his predecessor as PM — a decade ago.
Netanyahu is desperate to discredit the investigations, and meets every accusation with a strong denial. Police may believe he’s a lawbreaker, but he wants Israel to think he’s James Bond.
Netanyahu posted a video this week, made by a fan, which shows footage of newscasters reporting his legal probes. A caption then says, “and in the real world” — followed by the James Bond 007 theme music and footage of Netanyahu in statesmanlike mode, protecting Israel’s interests.
But it’s unclear how long Netanyahu can successfully use this kind of response.
Israel looks very different today than it did two weeks ago. Many Israelis take the stance that the legal authorities should lay off the Netanyahus, but they still view seriously suggestions that an aide tried, in 2015, to elevate a since-retired judge, Hila Gerstel, to attorney general if she would end probes into Netanyahu’s wife.
The bribery allegations in relation to the gifts from Milchan and another businessman were more serious, in the police recommendation to indict, than many people expected. In the police’s version of events, the value of gifts to the Netanyahus is high — hundreds of thousands of shekels — and the PM is not being lambasted on a technicality but rather accused of safeguarding a lucrative tax break for Milchan as a quid-pro-quo.
As for Netanyahu’s relationship with the media, the claims are getting a whole lot more serious. The accusation that he tried to cut a deal with the publisher of Yediot Achronot to secure better coverage seemed sensational when it was first voiced. But this could turn out to be small fry compared to the case that prompted arrests this week.
The newly arrested Netanyahu aides were named on Tuesday as former family spokesman Nir Hefetz and Shlomo Filber, who directed the communications ministry under Netanyahu. They are suspected of giving regulatory benefits to Israel’s Bezeq telecom company, in return for giving Netanyahu more favorable coverage on the Walla news site, which is owned by the same holding company.
Israeli media reports suggest that police are building a strong case claiming that the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, Shaul Elovitch, had Walla downplay or omit critical stories about the Netanyahus. This was at a time when Netanyahu served as communications minister as well as prime minister, and the suspicion is that he secured positive press in return for communications ministry policies that gave Bezeq big financial gains.
The Yediot case involves an alleged attempt to make a deal — but no deal ever panned out. The Bezeq investigation involves a news site that did, reportedly, tailor its coverage according to Netanyahu’s wishes — a move that seemingly caused internal upheaval in the media organization. And police reportedly suspect that this led to government moves that resulted in huge gains by Bezeq.
Before the arrests in the Bezeq case, according to polls, about half of Israelis already thought that Netanyahu should resign ahead of any decision on indictment. Whether this figure rises enough to make Netanyahu’s political life untenable is likely to depend on the Sucker Principle: Israelis hate nothing more than feeling they are friars, or suckers — and will avoid this at all cost.
Netanyahu could be in big trouble if his political opponents can get the general public to keep up a strong and long reaction to the police recommendation and the allegation that the attorney general post was offered in return for protecting his wife.
But perhaps most of all, the success of the anti-Bibi camp will hinge on whether it can convince Israelis that, if the Bezeq case stands up, a duo of big business and Bibi have made them suckers by lining pockets and skewing their online news.
On the other hand, if Bibi can drown out his opponents with the 007 music, we could even have a PM happily leading the state while indicted.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.