The Scandals that Could Topple Netanyahu

A new friend in the White House and no real opposition at home should make Bibi very happy. But three brewing investigations could lead him in search of new enemies.


TEL AVIV, Israel — While driving on Israeli roads, one often sees improvised road signs pointing guests toward couples’ wedding ceremonies. A few weeks back, somebody posted just such a sign on the road leading from Jerusalem to the city of Lod, where the Lahav 433 police unit, which specializes in investigating corruption, is headquartered. “To Bibi and Sarah’s investigation,” the sign read.

The Netanyahu investigations have already cast a long shadow over Israel’s political arena. While the Israeli police didn’t summon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Lod last month, he was interviewed for the third time in January at his Jerusalem residence about a complex web of corruption scandals in which he finds himself increasingly entangled.

The details leaked from the investigations — and especially Netanyahu’s uncommonly erratic behavior — are widely seen as proof that, this time, the prime minister is in deep trouble. New elections — perhaps even an end to the country’s most successful political career during the last two decades — are suddenly viewed as a likely possibility.

In short, Netanyahu is currently under investigation for at least three scandals. The first (labeled “Case 1000” by the police) concerns expensive presents that the Netanyahus admitted to accepting from wealthy friends. One of those friends, Arnon Milchan, is an Israeli tycoon living in the United States who made his fortune in the entertainment industry. The police suspect that, over the years, Milchan has given the couple about $180,000 worth of presents — including expensive cigars (for him) and champagne and jewelry (for her).

During most of that time, Milchan was part owner of the Israeli TV station Channel 10, which heavily depended on the government’s financial help to survive. The police will likely investigate whether Milchan’s ownership of the channel was in any way connected to his generosity with gifts.

At the center of the second investigation (“Case 2000”) is another businessman, Arnon Mozes, who is the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s second-largest daily newspaper.

Netanyahu and Mozes are sworn political enemies but conducted a series of confidential meetings in the months leading up to the 2015 elections. The police suspect that they were discussing a secret deal: Mozes would curtail criticism of the government in his newspaper (and influential website Ynet), and in return the prime minister would make sure that Israel Today, a free daily that amounts to Yedioth’s biggest rival, would print fewer copies. Israel Today was founded in 2007 by Sheldon Adelson, a conservative Jewish American billionaire, in order to support Netanyahu’s political comeback.

The scandal embarrassed Netanyahu on different levels. It turned out that while he was rallying his supporters against Mozes, he was actually negotiating with him. He also discussed limitations on Israel Today’s business behind the back of his benefactor, Adelson, after stating publicly that he had no involvement in such issues.

How do the police know all this? Well, it turns out that Netanyahu, an avid follower of American politics, learned nothing from Watergate. His former chief of staff recorded audio of the two meetings on his cellphone, which was confiscated by the police during another, unrelated, investigation.

The third scandal (“Case 3000”) has yet to be connected directly to Netanyahu. It involves suspicions of wrongdoing regarding negotiations over huge weapons deals between Israel and Germany, in which Israel discussed buying submarines and ships from the German manufacturer ThyssenKrupp. Channel 10 reported that Netanyahu’s personal lawyer, second cousin, and close advisor David Shimron also represents an Israeli businessman who negotiated the deal between the government and the German shipyard.

Both Shimron and Netanyahu flatly deny that the prime minister knew anything about this. But it amounts to a potential conflict of interest if the lawyer who represents Netanyahu in both political negotiations and private matters — and is also frequently interviewed as his representative on Israeli media — makes a lot of money representing a businessman who makes even more money because Israel buys expensive ships from a certain shipyard.


A swirl of controversy and conspiracy

Most of the controversy between Netanyahu and the police doesn’t center on the facts of the cases. Netanyahu has admitted to receiving the gifts and meeting with Mozes; he just claims that he is allowed to receive such presents and that his meetings with Mozes were no different than previous negotiations between the influential publisher and some of his predecessors. He keeps repeating the mantra: “They won’t find anything, because there is nothing.” Responding to growing media criticism, the prime minister recently blamed the “leftist media” for conspiring against him in a “Bolshevik hunt” and called on the police and attorney general not to yield to external pressures.

Netanyahu isn’t the first Israeli prime minister to be the subject of a corruption probe — Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak were investigated previously, and Ehud Olmert is still in jail. But Netanyahu’s recent behavior suggests a growing distance between himself and the everyday lives of his citizens. The fact that his office has been busy pushing an initiative to build an “Israeli White House” in Jerusalem and buy an Israeli Air Force One, costing a combined hundreds of millions of dollars, is not much help.

Israeli law doesn’t force the prime minister to resign, even after he is indicted. If his coalition begins to disintegrate, Netanyahu can announce new elections, which he could yet win. Most importantly, his political allies are not keen on disbanding Israel’s most right-wing government ever over allegations of corruption. “You don’t overthrow a prime minister over a few cigars,” Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, said.

Yet there are signs that Israel’s political class is considering new elections as an increasingly likely scenario. Last month, the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies became a fight club for Israeli politicians, both in and out of the coalition. Bennett aggressively attacked Netanyahu, without mentioning him by name, for showing uncertainty during the war with Hamas in Gaza in the summer of 2014. A State Comptroller report, due out next month, is expected to severely criticize Netanyahu’s conduct during the war while praising Bennett for his instincts and initiative. Bennett is also pushing Netanyahu to take advantage of U.S. President Donald Trump’s new administration by annexing the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim and declaring the end of the two-state solution.

Netanyahu would rather be careful and wait for his first meeting with Trump later this month before taking such steps. His government recently evacuated the Israeli settlement of Amona, which had been declared illegal by the High Court. But it has already approved building thousands more housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the creation of the first new settlement in a quarter century, in the hope of easing some of the pressure from Bennett and the settler movement’s leaders. Yesterday, the Israeli parliament also passed a law retroactively legalizing illegally built outposts in the West Bank.


Looking for new enemies

But the most troubling consequence of the current political crisis may relate to Israel’s international conduct. As a result of the turmoil in the Arab world and the weakening of the surrounding countries’ militaries, the Israeli intelligence community currently believes the chances for a traditional, full-scale war with its neighbors are exceptionally slim. However, when it comes to unconventional threats — Hamas in Gaza, Palestinian unrest in the West Bank, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Islamic State branches in the Sinai Peninsula and the south Golan Heights — the situation is more dangerous than ever. On some of these fronts, it recently seems as if Israel is only two miscalculations away from a massive escalation.

The main reason for Netanyahu’s ongoing political success is the fact that most Israeli voters trust him on matters of security. He maintains a reputation for both toughness and caution, which are extremely important for a population that has witnessed decades of terrorist attacks.

Netanyahu has actually been careful not to entangle Israel in unnecessary wars. By contrast, his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, dragged Israel into wars in Lebanon and Gaza within three years. Even the 2014 Gaza war, the largest conflict during Netanyahu’s tenure, was mainly a result of Hamas provoking the prime minister to react. As for Netanyahu’s Iranian fixation, it’s worth noting that he eventually didn’t order any attack on Tehran’s nuclear sites. He has also successfully kept Israel out of the bloodshed in Syria for almost six years.

But now things may be different. Netanyahu seems determined to fight tooth and nail for his political survival. Under these circumstances, there is a temptation for a controlled escalation that might convince the Israeli public that he is the only leader who can take care of its security in an extremely hostile neighborhood. The new American president, a much more volatile leader than Netanyahu, may only make things even more complicated. This time, Netanyahu hardly has anyone with whom to consult on the domestic front. Former Defense Ministers Ehud Barak and Moshe Yaalon, as well as Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, were all expelled from his government.

Left-wing and centrist Israelis have therefore come to rely more and more on the army chief of staff, Gen. Gadi Eizenkot. His predecessors had been instrumental in persuading Netanyahu not to attack Iran between 2009 and 2013 — and now it is Eizenkot’s job to serve as Israel’s responsible adult and make sure that only relevant reasons lead to military action.

With Trump in the Oval Office and himself at the head of a right-wing government, Netanyahu should be basking in this moment of triumph. Instead, the threats to his hold on power are rapidly piling up. Two weeks ago, a sewage problem forced the officers in Lahav 433, investigating the Bibi scandals, to temporarily evacuate their offices. At their Jerusalem residence, with their cigars and $200 bottles of pink champagne, the Netanyahus may not have noticed. Many Israelis, however, are beginning to smell the stench.

Peter Nicholls – WPA Pool/Getty Images

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