By Sarah Wildman
“Fake news.” A “witch hunt.”
Those weren’t the words of Donald Trump. They were the combative statements of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing a widening corruption scandal that threatens to end his political career.
Wednesday night, at a Tel Aviv rally organized by his Likud party, Netanyahu went on the offensive.
“We know that the left and the media — and we know that it’s the same thing — is on an unprecedented hunt against me and my family to bring down the government,” he said. “They are putting unrelenting pressure on the legal system in order for them to present an indictment without any proof.”
The rally, and the reaction, come back to a long-running corruption scandal in Israel, which just last week took an explosive new turn. Israel is now facing the very real prospect that Netanyahu, Israel’s long-serving prime minister, will lose his job — and even potentially be sent to jail.
But as the comments make clear, he’s not going down without a fight.
Netanyahu, arguably Donald Trump’s closest ally in the Middle East, has been shadowed by allegations of financial improprieties for years, but has always stayed one step ahead of his pursuers. That seems to be changing.
The latest — and potentially decisive — blows to Netanyahu began last week with a pair of disclosures that stunned observers on both sides of Israel’s political spectrum.
On Thursday, court filings revealed Netanyahu was now officially a suspect in bribery, breach of trust, and fraud cases. Another shocker came that same day with news that Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, an Israeli-American named Ari Harow, took a plea bargain to become a state’s witness in a corruption case against his former boss. In exchange for a light sentence of community service, and a 700,000 shekel ($193,000) fine, Harow will now testify against Netanyahu.
It’s not just the prime minister — his whole household is under scrutiny: The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported on Monday that his wife, Sara Netanyahu, will likely be indicted soon for misuse of government funds.
For most politicians, those types of disclosures would mean it was a question of when, not if, their careers would end in disgrace. But Netanyahu has long been the phoenix of Israeli politics, and he angrily dismissed the new revelations. On Facebook he derisively called them “background noise.”
Miri Regev, the minister of sports and culture and a close Netanyahu ally, told the press, “I’m not worried at all. The prime minister is not worried either.”
So far, many of Netanyahu’s allies have remained behind him. But if his legal woes continue, that could change. And while it’s still too early to assess the likelihood of incarceration, prison is not totally out of the question. After all, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was only just released from prison after serving 16 months for a different corruption charge.
To be sure, an indictment might not mean the end of Netanyahu’s political career. “Formally, he won’t have to resign,” Hebrew University law professor Barak Medina told the Associated Press. “[I]f all the information comes out and the police recommend he be charged with a serious crime, it is unlikely he will be able to carry on in his job.”
That wouldn’t just be bad news for Netanyahu, who is trying to surpass David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the modern Jewish State, as the longest-serving prime minister in his country’s history. It would also be bad news for President Donald Trump, who’d be losing his closest ally in the Middle East just as he prepares a major new peace initiative.
Netanyahu’s sure facing a lot of corruption investigations
There are so many separate corruption charges threatening to finally bring down Netanyahu that the Israeli press refers to them by numbers.
In Case 2000, Netanyahu is suspected to have colluded with Arnon Mozes, publisher of Israel’s daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot to undermine the circulation of Israel’s free daily paper, Israel HaYom. The latter is a free daily sponsored by American billionaire (and Republican king-maker) Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate with tremendous reach and influence on Israeli politics.
Back in January the police revealed they had tapes that would show what the Israel press called “a quid pro quo” deal between Mozes and Netanyahu. Mozes apparently promised to do “everything in his power” to keep Netanyahu in office, Netanyahu, in turn, appears to have indicated he would do what he could to limit Israel HaYom’s reach — some reports implied that might have meant through legislation.
The recordings were made by Ari Harow, the very same chief of staff who cut the deal last week.
Israeli police found those tapes, apparently unexpectedly, while searching Harow’s home for evidence that he had not fully divested himself from his own consulting firm before beginning work in the prime minister’s office. (Harow had officially transferred the firm to his brother, to avoid ethics violations; that gambit clearly failed).
In Case 1000, Arnon Milchan, a film producer, is said to have given large monetary gifts to Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. Further, Australian billionaire James Packer was said to have showered the couple with gifts and meals at their home in the Israeli coastal city Ceasaria. As Noam Sheizaf reported for Vox earlier this year, “in one incident reported by the Israeli media, Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, specifically demanded $2,700 worth of jewelry.”
For their part, the Netanyahu’s have said the gifts were merely (legal) gifts between friends. But, as Sheizaf pointed out, Milchan has a stake in Israel’s Channel 10 news, subject to regulation by the Israeli Ministry of Communications — which, itself, was run by Netanyahu until recently. And Netanyahu personally got involved in Milchan’s visa renewal process. None of it smelled quite kosher.
A third criminal investigation, Case 3000, involves the purchase of German submarines. This one is the most complicated, and has the most tenuous line to Netanyahu. Six people have been brought in for questioning, one of whom is Netanyahu’s personal lawyer who himself also represented the submarine manufacturer. Ha’aretz reported late last month that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal lawyer was due to earn tens of millions of shekels from an agreement, since suspended, to buy three submarines from Germany.”
Finally, Israeli authorities have long threatened to indict Sara Netanyahu for fraud. As Ha’aretz reported today, she is accused of using government money to pay for what they call “personal expenses” in her private home. The country’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, is expected to indict her within the next few days.
Netanyahu once looked like he could survive anything. That’s changed.
Netanyahau’s political fate has long rested in the hands of Mandelblit, who has a mixed reputation in Israel. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a longtime Netanyahu rival, has publicly criticized the attorney general for failing to indict and prosecute the prime minister more quickly. Barak and other critics point to Mandelblit’s previous job as a cabinet secretary, which involved working closely with Netanyahu. Mandelblit’s ascension was considered a win for Netanyahu when he took the position.
But a high-level police investigator told Noam Sheizaf earlier this year that that slow movement might mean Mandeblit was taking his time to build a stronger case against the prime minister. That doesn’t mean an indictment will come tomorrow. But it makes an indictment seem likelier.
Sima Kadmon, a political columnist in Israel, wrote at the end of last week that “Harow is the game changer because he was so close to the prime minister,” noting that Harow once served as Netanyahu’s foreign relations advisor and held a variety of other senior posts for the last decade.
That means Harrow has had unique access to Netanyahu’s activities for the last several years — and can speak, as few others can, to their legality.
All that said, prosecuting Netanyahu may still be months, or even years, away.
“This feels like we are at the beginning of the end,” said Daniel Levy, the president of the US Middle East Project.