Is This The End Of Bibi?
Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is the great survivor in the blood sport of Israeli politics. Glib, cunning and endlessly calculating, he squeezed past Shimon Peres to narrowly win a first term as prime minister in 1996, only to crash on the rocks of hubris and be crushed by Ehud Barak three years later. Ariel Sharon brought him back to political life as foreign minister and, later, finance minister. He repaid him by quitting the government after Mr. Sharon decided to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. In 2009, he returned as prime minister and has been there ever since, coming out on top in two more elections and cobbling together governing parliamentary coalitions with parties from many points on the Israeli political spectrum. He says he’ll seek an unprecedented fifth term as prime minister.
Unless he goes to jail first. The prime minister often has danced perilously close to scandal and defeat, only to come out on top. But a series of corruption cases suddenly has the Israeli public wondering if this is the end of Bibi. Four cases working their way through the Israeli justice system pose a threat.
Israeli prosecutors like round numbers. In “Case 1000,” Mr. Netanyahu is alleged to have received shipments of expensive cigars and champagne, as well as gifts of jewelry, plane tickets and hotel rooms, from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer. What Mr. Netanyahu did in return is murky. News reports say he may have helped the two men with visa and residency issues—pretty thin stuff to bring down a prime minister—and protected Mr. Milchan’s interests in an Israeli television channel. Mr. Netanyahu insists that the lavish gifts were just tokens of affection from two good friends. The charges here could run from breach of public trust to bribery.
In “Case 2000,” Mr. Netanyahu is suspected of conspiring with an Israeli newspaper owner, Arnon Mozes, to illegally block a rival publication. In a classic Bibi twist, the rival publication was in fact a pro-Netanyahu tabloid owned by American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a supporter of the prime minister. But Mr. Netanyahu wanted Mr. Mozes’ newspaper to stop criticizing him. So he plotted to throw his own supporter, Mr. Adelson, under the bus. You can’t make this stuff up. Allegedly, Mr. Netanyahu conspired with Mr. Mozes to move legislation through the Israeli parliament that would have crippled Mr. Adelson’s newspaper. The charge here is bribery—an exchange of better newspaper coverage for favorable legislation. Mr. Netanyahu has deployed the “just kidding” defense in the case, insisting he never really meant to go forward with the plan, but was simply stringing Mr. Mozes along in conversations.
“Case 3000” is known in Israel as “the Submarine Affair.” Mr. Netanyahu is not a target in the investigation—at least not yet. He has denied any wrongdoing. In the case, Israeli businessman Michael Ganor is alleged to have bribed government officials to secure a billion-dollar deal to purchase submarines from a German manufacturer. Mr. Ganor’s lawyer was David Shimron, who was also Mr. Netanyahu’s personal lawyer and adviser. And his cousin. The Israeli media have reported that Mr. Shimron leaned on government officials on behalf of Mr. Ganor and was looking at a large payout from the deal, which was suspended amid the corruption controversy; Mr. Shimron denied the reports and says he did nothing wrong. A former Israeli defense minister, on the outs with the prime minister, reportedly told police investigators that Mr. Netanyahu facilitated the deal by sinking an earlier Defense Ministry contract and ordering more submarines than Israel needed. Mr. Netanyahu denied the allegations.
In “Case 4000,” known as “the Bezeq Affair,” a Netanyahu appointee at the Israeli Communications Ministry has been accused of providing confidential documents and information to the Israeli telecom giant, Bezeq. The information provided an improper financial advantage to Bezeq, investigators say. Mr. Netanyahu’s very good friend Shaul Elovitch is the controlling shareholder in Bezeq. A government inquiry found that Mr. Netanyahu, who in various ministerial capacities had the power to shape policy to benefit Bezeq, had failed to disclose his relationship with Mr. Elovitch. Mr. Netanyahu has not been charged with wrongdoing in the case.
Several recent developments signal more trouble ahead for Mr. Netanyahu. Most ominous, earlier this month, his former chief of staff, Ari Harow, agreed to testify in Case 1000 and Case 2000. Nailed on fraud charges in an unrelated case, Mr. Harow agreed to turn state’s witness in the two corruption cases. In the Submarine Affair, the key suspect, Mr. Ganor, has signed a cooperation agreement and agreed to testify. In the Bezeq Affair, the Netanyahu appointee at the center of the case has been placed under house arrest, and Mr. Netanyahu’s failure to disclose his relationship with the telecom giant’s controlling shareholder could lead to a conflict-of-interest probe.
That’s a lot of investigative muscle directed at the prime minister, but I wouldn’t count Bibi out just yet. Witnesses—even state witnesses—often are not as helpful as prosecutors think they will be. Mr. Netanyahu has an explanation for everything and a masterful command of the levers of political power. He’ll go down fighting. The endgame will play out over the next few months. If Mr. Netanyahu is indicted in any of the corruption cases and refuses to step down, it will be up to the Israeli parliamentary and judicial systems to summon the political will to remove him from office.
Investigative Bulletin is going on vacation. See you in September!
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: [email protected]
Investigative Bulletin is published by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: [email protected]