Netanyahu in the dock

Now that Israel finally has a government, a centrist unity government at that, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is now facing Jerusalem District Court judges, where he is accused of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. The investigation of Netanyahu began in 2016.

Long investigations are not unusual in Israel. Nor is acquittal of all charges for political figures unusual. For example, Avigdor Liberman, who heads the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party, was dogged by the police on charges of corruption from 1999-2006 and from 2009-2013. In all cases he was found not guilty.

Netanyahu is Israel’s longest serving prime minister and the first one to be brought to trial while serving as head of the government. There have been other high level government officials who were brought to trial but neither was in office during the trial. Both President Moshe Katsav (rape) and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (bribery) were convicted and served time in prison.

Netanyahu tried mightily to avoid this trial by various means. He sought immunity from prosecution but eventually dropped that approach. He tried being exempted by the Knesset until he was out of office, but that didn’t work either. He tried to have the charges against him dropped for lack of a case and that also failed.

Keep in mind the fact that during the last three elections Bibi (actually his party, Likud) received a plurality from the electorate and polls show that the public wants him to continue as prime minister. Finally, after three elections and in the throes of the coronavirus, Bibi crafted a compromise with Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, to share the prime ministership for the next several years, with Bibi serving first (and possibly at the end of the period as well – barring his conviction).

There are three cases that the prime minister faces:
Case 1000: Applying the ‘smell’ test, Bibi’s behavior stinks. But did he do anything illegal in accepting gifts valued at $200,000, primarily cigars and champagne? It’s well known that Bibi enjoys the perks of his job and appreciates the lifestyle that accompanies it. But as far as I know, Bibi wasn’t selling cigars and champagne out the back door of the Prime Minister’s residence. In this case, Bibi is charged with fraud and breach of trust. Israeli-American billionaire producer Arnon Milchan is a chief witness. Bibi’s lawyers contend that there is nothing illegal about receiving gifts from friends.

Case 2000 – The charge is attempted bribery of the publisher of Yideot Ahranot, Israel’s second largest daily paper in exchange for more positive treatment for Netanyahu. In turn, Bibi would act to reduce the circulation of Israel HaYom, the largest, free paper, which backs him and the Likud Party. Bibi’s lawyers contend that this wasn’t an illegal act because there’s no indication that Bibi planned to go through with his proposal, nor, in fact, did he do so. The lawyers also state that, “give and take” between media figures and politicians is commonplace and therefore should not be criminalized. American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who owns Israel HaYom, is a chief witness.

Case 4000 – This is the most serious charge: bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. The case involves suspicions that Netanyahu, in his role while he was both communications minister and prime minister, intervened with regulators to help Shaul Elovitch’s Bezeq group. In exchange, Elovitch, a longtime friend of Netanyahu’s, allegedly would order Bezeq’s Walla news site to provide favorable coverage of the prime minister and his wife Sara.  (https://www.haaretz.com/)

Critics say that this is a novel charge which could set an unworkable precedent. “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyers presented a legal opinion from five American professors, including Alan Dershowitz, during pre-indictment hearings arguing that investigating the swaying of media coverage as a criminal offense constitutes a danger to democracy…. Dershowitz has previously stated that politicians routinely negotiate with news outlets on coverage, telling Army Radio last year that ‘interfering in the relationship between media and the government poses a tremendous danger to free speech.’” (https://www.timesofisrael.com/)

The above three cases are the result of four years of investigation by the police and the Ministry of Justice. Whether Bibi is convicted is up to the three judges who will decide the case, not the public. If convicted (and perhaps after appeals), Bibi will resign his position and Benny Gantz will replace him. Stating what happens after that would just be guesswork.

About the Author
Steve Kramer grew up in Atlantic City, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1967, adopted the hippie lifestyle until 1973, then joined the family business for 15 years. Steve moved to Israel from Margate, NJ in 1991 with his family. He has written more than 1100 articles about Israel and Jews since making Aliyah. Steve and his wife Michal live in Kfar Saba.
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