A smoking gun? What are Bibi’s accusers smoking?

Is the writing on the wall for Benjamin Netanyahu, now that Israel’s police have recommended his indictment? Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit may be in an awkward spot, but actually his task may not be all that problematical. Bibi should chill.

“Case 1000” concerns gifts from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and others. In return, it is primarily alleged, Netanyahu got his then finance minister to sponsor legislation extending tax breaks for returning expatriates.

The gifts are alleged to have amounted in value to almost three hundred thousand dollars. Yet all we have heard about is “pricey cigars and champagne.” Is that it? No bulging Swiss account? No Cayman registrations? Are they ‘aving a laff? as Rickie Gervais might say.  

Who exactly came up with the accusation and the value? Have the police totted up the bottles in Netanyahu’s cellar? Checked the bins for butts? Unearthed receipts? Netanyahu has generous friends. Why wouldn’t he? He’s not Mahatmar Gandi.

Perhaps he should have returned the gifts. But it’s criminal intent that counts, mens rea. You can’t infer this from a lack of fastidiousness. Perhaps it would have been wiser to decline all gifts but handing back a present might have been socially awkward, not to say ungracious and alienating.

“Case 4000” also involves allegedly corrupt procurement of legislative changes. In return for favourable coverage on Walla, an online news site operated by Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecom company, Netanyahu supposedly got the Communications Ministry to institute regulatory adjustments which had the effect of enhancing the company’s profits.

For compelling constitutional reasons, if for no other, both charges are utterly unreal.

To prove a corrupt inducement the prosecution must demonstrate that the benefit in question was not otherwise obtained or obtainable through wholly legitimate means. Like Westminster the Knesset’s job is to scrutinise proposed primary and secondary legislation. It is fanciful to suppose that any ministry can sneak statutorily controlled regulatory changes through the legislative process under the noses of Knesset members – particularly independent-minded Israeli politicians – which they would not be prepared collectively to approve as promoting good governance in the public interest.

The departure of Israelis for Europe and the US has long posed a demographic and fiscal headache and there is a compelling public interest in luring back wealthy and successful venturers.

Again, the regulatory changes which enabled Bezeq to increase its profits would have been approved because the Knesset deemed them to be in the public interest. That Netanyahu may have had a collateral motive could not make an inherently legitimate process corrupt.

An “integral part” of “Case 1000” is the testimony of the former finance minister whom Netanyahu supposedly suborned to get the revenue law changed. He is none other than Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party and Netanyahu’s principal rival. Say no more.

The key witness in “Case 4000” is expected to be Shlomo Filber, director-general of the communications ministry from 2015 until 2017 (when Netanyahu doubled as Communications Minister) and Netanyahu’s long time factotum. Earlier this week he was arrested together with a number of Netanyahu’s other friends and associates, including, notably, Bezeq’s main shareholder, Shaul Elovitch.

Lured by the promise of avoiding gaol time Filber has reportedly agreed to testify that he was acting on Netanyahu’s explicit instructions. But in working to draft legitimate changes in the regulations Filber’s motives are irrelevant and cannot implicate Netanyahu whatever allegations he might be making to save his skin.

In any event, the Attorney-General will know that in purporting to confess to wrongdoing Filber’s credibility is inherently diminished. Mandelblit would do well to remember the Torah injunction Al tashet yadcha im-rashah lihyot ed chamas – “put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness” (Exodus, 23:1). The state should think long and hard before enlisting slef-proclaimed accomplices to bolster dodgy cases.

“Case 2000” alleges that Netanyahu endeavoured to gain more flattering coverage from the mass-circulation tabloid Yediot Aharonot by promising its publisher, Arnon Mozes, that he would get American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, owner of the rival daily Israel Hayom, to curtail plans for its expansion.

Yet by 2014 Adelson’s paper had run up losses of two hundred million dollars. What more did Netanyahu need to do to impede the paper’s fortunes than it hadn’t already done itself?

Adelson supposedly told the police last year that Netanyahu had urged him to restrain the paper’s growth. The police are said to have seized audio recordings of incriminating calls between Netanyahu and Mozes.

Their substance is yet to be released but one might conjecture the thrust of the exchanges. Netanyahu: “Support me and I’ll  ensure Israel Hayom doesn’t capture your readership.” Mozes: “How will you do that, Bibi?” Netanyahu: “Er, er, I’ll ask Sheldon.”

“Case 3000” relates to interference with military hardware procurement. Netanyahu’s denials in relation to that, as well as complicity in the other cases, have been widely called into question by the recording of a boozy exchange between his son Yair and the son of an energy tycoon who had benefited from legislation governing offshore gas extraction: “My dad just got you a $20 billion deal and you can’t spare me four hundred shekels?”

Despite their penchant for strained and fanciful inferences, would even the Israeli police regard this drunken nonsense from a spoilt ne’er do well as the smoking gun of his father’s corruption?

About the Author
David Wolchover is a Barrister and author of Culprits of Lockerbie
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