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Can Bibi Survive Multiple Scandals?

Binyamin Rose, Yossi Elituv, and Tzippy Yarom

Attorney general needs irrefutable proof of guilt to indict

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

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BETRAYAL OR HONESTY? Will Avichai Mandelblit indict the prime minister who appointed him to his post? (Photo: Flash90)

I t’s easy to understand Binyamin Netanyahu’s interest in pursuing positive media coverage. It’s just as easy to comprehend why a media mogul would seek a political favor to gain a competitive advantage over a rival who has cut deeply into his market share.

That’s the backstory to the scandal over recorded conversations between Netanyahu and Arnon “Noni” Mozes, the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, a leftist, secular publication, whose open hostility to Netanyahu is their daily grist.

The recordings were reportedly confiscated from Netanyahu’s former chief of staff as part of an ongoing corruption investigation. Whether these conversations constitute a crime is a decision that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will soon be forced to make in what some pundits are calling a political earthquake that could shake Netanyahu from office.

Until Mandelblit rules, it is Mozes whose face is redder, while Netanyahu assures supporters there may be smoke, but there is no fire.

On Sunday, Yedioth’s editor-in-chief Ron Yaron admitted to readers that morale at the paper is suffering from the allegations, although he added: “We are continuing as usual and we will continue working in good faith.” That same morning, Netanyahu took a similar attitude, presiding over the weekly cabinet meeting, where he labeled the Paris gang-up on Israel as “useless,” lauded cabinet approval of a five-year plan to integrate Israel’s Bedouin population into the Israeli economy, and praised Israel’s efforts to strengthen technological innovation through a smart transportation program.

Despite his business-as-usual attitude, the allegations against Netanyahu have apparently weakened his support. The latest Dialog Poll of 597 Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, published by Walla, a website considered to be pro-Bibi, shows that if elections were held today, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid would become Israel’s largest political party, with 27 seats to the Likud’s 24. Asked who was more suited to be prime minister, Bibi edged Lapid by a mere four points — 37% to 33%.

Netanyahu might take solace that when the Smith Poll — taken the same week — polled Israelis on who is worthy of being prime minister if Netanyahu is forced to resign, Lapid lost to “Don’t Know” by a 28%–22% margin. But as self-confident as Netanyahu comes across, this is not a time he can afford to be smug.

Governments can fall rapidly and unexpectedly in Israel, as one did in December 2014, when Netanyahu dismissed coalition party leaders Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, who Bibi accused of undermining his government by trying to make their own foreign policy. At the time, Netanyahu accused Mozes on his Facebook page of being “the primary force behind the wave of mudslinging” against him and his wife.

Yet some time prior to that, in 2014, the tapes show that Netanyahu and Mozes met to discuss a deal. The Knesset was then considering a bill to outlaw the distribution of free newspapers, a law clearly aimed at Yisrael Hayom, a daily that began publishing in 2007, with funding from US casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a conservative Republican and staunch Netanyahu supporter. By 2010, Yisrael Hayom had surpassed Yediot in weekly circulation and now holds a 5% lead in market share. The bill was introduced by Labor’s Eitan Cabel, who argued that by offering his paper for free, Adelson was undercutting the competition.

The Knesset passed the measure on first reading, but the government fell a month later, before the bill could be voted into law. The current Knesset never revived it.

Sordid as the case sounds, in the end, Attorney General Mandelblit must decide whether the conversations constitute fraud and breach of trust, but perhaps more importantly, if any formal accusation would hold up under the higher threshold for burden of proof required from a high public official.

The standard Israeli prosecutors normally apply to indict high government officials calls for finding “irrefutable proof of guilt.” Netanyahu has survived two such previous investigations. In 1997, in his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu was accused of appointing Roni Bar-On to be attorney general as a political favor to Aryeh Deri. The case ended when Bar-On’s nomination was withdrawn. In 2001, then attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein declined to prosecute Netanyahu for having taken gifts during his second term as prime minister, saying most of the evidence was based on hearsay.

Only one sitting prime minister has been forced out of office, Yitzhak Rabin in 1977, for revelation of the existence of a foreign bank account that was illegal in those days.

Questions have also been raised as to why the Mozes-Netanyahu tapes were made public now, when the attorney general has known of them for months. Some of the answers reveal a deep cynicism of Israel’s good-old-boy political network.

Some speculation has been raised that Mandelblit — a Netanyahu appointee who formerly served Bibi as his cabinet secretary and has his eyes on one of the four Supreme Court seats becoming vacant in 2017 — leaked the news of the tapes. According to one theory, Mandelblit is building his case as a tough, independent prosecutor worthy of selection to the high court. A second theory contends Mandelblit is protecting Bibi by deflecting attention from the concurrent investigation into Netanyahu’s receipt of expensive gifts from wealthy friends overseas, including cigars, suits, champagne, and fancy hotel stays. By leveling, and then clearing Netanyahu of a more serious charge, the gift issue would then fade from the public’s eye.

Conspiracy theories aside, Netanyahu does face a new challenge that he has not yet experienced in prior probes.

The era in which a politician possessed a modicum of privacy is over. In our new era, both authorities and citizen journalists have surveillance tools that fit in the palms of their hands to follow a money trail or personal peccadilloes. No one is out of range of having their deeds recorded or filmed.

Whether your name is Binyamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, or Vladimir Putin, Big Brother is watching. Corruption and misbehavior can easily end the career of even the most veteran and capable politician.

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