Faced with mounting scandal, the Israeli prime minister is lashing out at "fake news" and alleging a witch hunt. But can the Trump defense save him?
- By Amos HarelAmos Harel is the senior military correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
There are certain similarities between Israel’s political scandals and the never-ending drama of President Donald Trump’s administration, but also certain differences. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s entourage isn’t as lurid as Trump’s; it has no Anthony Scaramucci of its own, just an heir apparent with a fondness for poop emojis. And the drama in Jerusalem is more rapidly nearing completion than its competition in Washington.
Last Friday, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, signed a state’s witness deal with prosecutors and the police. Harow has been one of Netanyahu’s closest advisors for years. This is the single most important development in the long-running corruption investigations surrounding the prime minister, which now also entangle his wife, eldest son, personal lawyer, and one of his cabinet ministers. And now his son also faces a libel suit.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu responded with a rally of his own, attended by 3,000 of his supporters and most of the party’s ministers. The prime minister attacked the “fake news media” for joining forces with his opponents on the left to launch “an obsessive and unprecedented witch hunt against me and my family.”
Netanyahu is being investigated in two separate cases. The first, dubbed Case 1000, involves allegations that the Netanyahus received expensive gifts — about $150,000 worth of cigars, champagne and jewelry — from two wealthy businessmen. The second, Case 2000, revolves around negotiations held between Netanyahu and his archenemy Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot. Police suspect that on the eve of the 2015 Knesset elections, Mozes proposed that Yediot Ahronot and its popular website would curtail criticism of the prime minister, and in return Netanyahu would help limit printing of its strongest competitor, the pro-Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson-owned tabloid Israel Hayom.
Those closest to Netanyahu are also in trouble. Another investigation, Case 3000, involves allegations of bribery regarding the Israeli navy’s purchase of German-made ships and submarines. Netanyahu’s lawyer, David Shimron, also acted as the lawyer for a shady middle-man who became a state’s witness in late July. And the police have already recommended an indictment against Sara Netanyahu for mishandling state funds for the family’s residence, while media reports claim that one of his sons, Yair, accepted gifts from an Australian businessman.
Harow held a privileged place within Netanyahu’s inner circle and could very well be the witness that pushes these investigations further forward. When Harow was investigated for his own corruption scandal, which involves him allegedly leveraging his position for the benefit of private clients at his advisory firm, police confiscated his mobile phone and found that it contained recordings of the secret talks between Netanyahu and Mozes. It’s not the only piece of information relevant to the Netanyahu investigations that Harow likely holds; he was charged with keeping in touch with donors, for instance, and thus could know a lot about the illicit methods by which the Netanyahus have been receiving gifts for years.
The most likely reason that Harow cut a deal is because the evidence against him was strong, and he faced serious jail time. Now, he will do community service and pay a $195,000 fine. According to Haaretz writer Gidi Weitz, one of Israel’s finest investigative reporters, this development “has one virtually irreversible implication: An indictment against Netanyahu is coming…. There’s no point in helping a suspect in a legal condition as bad as Harow’s if no real compensation is given in return.”
Netanyahu, meanwhile, is attempting to maintain an image of calm. In a Facebook post published Friday afternoon, he listed his latest achievements and called on his supporters to ignore recent “background noise.” But in recent months, he has taken a page from Donald Trump and launched the sort of personal attacks that have never been his style before. He has constantly accused the Israeli media of spreading fake news and encouraging the police and the prosecution to initiate a witch hunt against him. The first thing Sara Netanyahu told the Trumps, when the American president and his wife landed here in May, was that both couples enjoy great support from the public and suffer from unfair and biased reporting from the media.
However, the pressure level inside the Netanyahu household remains high. Likud ministers frequently describe the prime minister’s Sunday morning moods: After a weekend with his wife and son, Netanyahu often returns full of fighting spirit, ready to go to war with his perceived political enemies. Since Trump’s victory in November, Netanyahu has told his advisors to “be like Trump” and initiated vicious public attacks on journalists who dared to criticize him. Channel 20, a tiny TV station that Netanyahu hopes would become Israel’s version of Fox News, compared Harow last Friday to Judas Iscariot.
Netanyahu’s left-wing critics have also begun holding weekly demonstrations on Saturday nights near Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s home, demanding swift justice. Their attacks against the Netanyahu family are sometimes petty, though hardly consequential — but even here, the Netanyahus have responded with the equivalent of a scorched-earth strategy. In late July, a viral Facebook post complained that Yair Netanyahu refused to pick up after the family dog, Kaya, near the premier’s residence in Jerusalem. Yair responded with a post of his own making unfounded accusations against the left, the media, and even the families of Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert.
Israeli law doesn’t force a prime minister to resign once he is indicted, and Israeli political analysts believe Netanyahu won’t leave office without a fight. Some assume he may announce early elections once an indictment seems inevitable. Another theory claims that if the worst comes to the worst, Netanyahu will cut a deal: early political retirement in return for no criminal charges.
Currently, the biggest mystery involves his coalition partners. Will they still support him after an indictment? Only a few ministers bothered to defend Netanyahu after the agreement with Harow was signed. He was forced to rely on some loyal Likud backbenchers who were willing to appear on TV news shows. Coalition Chair David Bitan, his strongest political ally, furiously responded by threatening to settle scores with Likud ministers come primary time.
However Netanyahu’s situation is resolved, it is bound to become uglier in the near term. For the prime minister, the media, the justice department, the courts, academia, and even the army and various security services’ top brass have always been part of a great conspiracy against him and his family. New York University Law professor Moshe Halbertal, an astute political observer, told me that Netanyahu’s constant attacks on elites’ personal vendetta against him also serves to persuade his voters that he is not at fault for his government’s failures.
Netanyahu still enjoys wide public support. The Likud hardcore voters idolize him, distrust the elites, and are hesitant to believe reports of Netanyahu’s indiscretions. More than anything, right-wing voters still believe they can trust Netanyahu on security matters. His image remains that of a tough, strong leader who is unlikely to make dangerous concessions to the Arabs or start unnecessary wars. Also, there are hardly any likely successors on the horizon. Netanyahu has intentionally weakened Likud ministers, while right-wing outsiders like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett will have to manage a hostile take-over of the party before becoming prime minister. On the center-left, Yair Lapid seems like a hollow shell, while newcomer Avi Gabbay, the surprise winner of the Labor Party primaries last month, lacks any relevant experience for the toughest job in Israel.
But even if Netanyahu stays in office, the atmosphere of scandal could have grave impacts on Israeli security. Many analysts worry that Netanyahu’s current state of mind may affect his usually level-headed conduct when dealing with strategic affairs. The Temple Mount crisis in mid-July, for instance, was a result of his hasty decision to install metal detectors near the entrances to the al-Aqsa Mosque. And Israel’s relationship with Jordan is now at risk, because he insisted on publishing photographs showing him together with an Israeli security guard whom the Jordanians agreed to release even though he had shot and killed two of their citizens in an incident in Amman. The situation is especially volatile in Gaza, where Israel is always two mistakes away from serious military escalation.
Harow, who was born in Los Angeles, hails from a dedicated Zionist family that immigrated to Israel when he was 12 years old. It’s hard to imagine that he ever thought he would find himself at the center of such a scandal. His rise to prominence also serves as a reminder how tiny Israeli society is: An acquaintance just posted a picture on Twitter of Harow from his army days; they were recruits together in the same infantry company some 25 years ago.
I haven’t met Harow, but our paths once intersected. In 2008, Netanyahu (then the Israeli opposition leader) and I were invited to speak at the same conference in Washington. We stayed on the same floor of the same hotel, but I arrived earlier. The lady at the reception must have misheard me when I said my name was Harel, and accidently gave me Harow’s room and keys.
When Harow arrived later and realized somebody was already in the room, he called the Secret Service, which was in charge of Netanyahu’s security as a former head of state. I had to answer some relatively hostile questioning from an American agent before he was convinced this was just a simple misunderstanding.
I hold no grudges against Harow. If it turns out that Netanyahu is indeed corrupt, his former chief of staff can still do a service to his country.
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