The noose tightens

Print edition : March 30, 2018

Benjamin Netanyahu at a Cabinet meeting on February 25. Photo: REUTERS

A demonstration against Netanyahu outside his offical residence on March 2. Photo: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

Ratan Tata, former chairman of Tata Sons. His name has come up in the course of investigations against Netanyahu. Photo: RAJEEV BHATT

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be putting a brave face on his troubles, but the corruption charges against him threaten to cut short his days in office.

THE noose round Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be tightening by the day. Many leading Israeli columnists have already written his political obituary. Noisy protests by Israelis have demanded the resignation of their “Crime Minister”. In the third week of February, the Israeli police confirmed that there was enough evidence to convict Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Police investigators claim to have collected sufficient proof to show that Netanyahu “acted against public interests”.

On February 20, the news emerged that one of Netanyahu’s closest and longest serving aides, Shlomo Filber, was ready to testify against his boss in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Filber served as the Director General in Israel’s Communications Ministry from 2015 to 2017 directly under Netanyahu after masterminding the latter’s controversial 2015 election campaign. Netanyahu had personally held charge of the important Communications portfolio for many years. Filber is expected to tell the investigators that he had doled out undue favours to a few oligarchs on the direct orders of the Prime Minister.

Undue favours to telecom giant

One of the most serious charges against Netanyahu is that undue favours were granted to Israel’s leading telecommunication company Bezeq immediately after Filber was appointed Director General in the Communications Ministry by Netanyahu. Media laws were tweaked to give Bezeq undue advantage over its rivals. In exchange for the favours, the company’s popular news website became a virtual propaganda organ for Netanyahu and his policies. This, if proved true, is a criminal offence under Israeli law.

Filber was suspended from his post at the end of last year. In August, another close associate of Netanyahu, his former chief of staff, Ari Harrow, agreed to cooperate with the police and become a state witness.

The police have also arrested many other close friends and associates of Netanyahu as they went about building a foolproof case. The police chief, Roni Alsheikh, a former senior official of Shin Beit, Israel's internal secret service, was hand-picked by the Prime Minister. Many Israelis were surprised when he decided to launch an exhaustive probe into the corruption allegations. Netanyahu had faced serious charges of corruption during his first term as Prime Minster in the late 1990s but narrowly escaped prosecution.

Netanyahu and his Likud Party came back to power in 2008 after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was forced to resign: investigators had accused him of accepting thousands of dollars in bribes. Olmert was later found guilty and sent to prison. Netanyahu, who was Leader of the Opposition at the time, was among those who most vociferously demanded Olmert’s resignation in 2008, though the corruption charges against him were made when he was the Mayor of Jerusalem. The Israeli justice system had also succeeded in getting the resignation of a sitting President, Moshe Katzav, who was accused of rape. He was sentenced to a seven-year prison term in 2011 but was released in 2016.

Political problems

After the latest revelations, members of the Likud Party are getting restive. The opposition is demanding early elections. Netanyahu gives the impression of being unfazed by the growing litany of charges against him, claiming that all of them are politically motivated and that his leadership is indispensable to Israel at this critical juncture of its history. He insists that elections will be held only in late 2019, as per schedule. “Let me reassure you, the coalition will be stable. No one, not I and no one else, plans to go for elections,” he declared recently. The statement came immediately after the police announced that they had found evidence that more than $300,000 had been handed over in bribes to the Prime Minister. Netanyahu has admitted to receiving gifts, including expensive jewellery, on a few occasions “from friends” but insists that he had not done anything wrong. He has sanctimoniously claimed that all his actions so far have been “for the good of the nation”.

But his desire to hold on to office at all costs is easier said than done. His immediate future depends on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision, which will come soon. Mandelblit was also a close political associate of Netanyahu before he was appointed to the post. If he decides to act on the police recommendations and file formal charges against Netanyahu, it will be difficult for him to continue in office. It will be the first time that formal charges will be framed against a sitting Prime Minister. In 1997, Yitzhak Rabin resigned as Prime Minister following mere accusations in the media that he held an account in a foreign bank without declaring it to the tax authorities at home.

Education Minister Naftali Bennet, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home Party, while expressing continued support for Netanyahu, has also said that the “harsh” police recommendations make it difficult for the Prime Minister to be “leader and role model for the citizens of Israel”.

Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, in any case, has a narrow majority in the parliament with only 66 seats in the 120-member House. If some of the smaller parties in the coalition decide to part ways with the Likud Party, which heads the coalition, Netanyahu’s days in office will be numbered.

Submarine case

One of his closest confidants, Yitzhak Molcho, was detained for questioning in August last year in connection with the scandal surrounding the multibillion-dollar purchase of submarines and missile ships from Germany. David Sharan, who was Netanyahu’s chief of staff from 2014 to 2016, was arrested in connection with the HDW submarine case, which has been described as the most serious case of corruption in Israel’s history so far. Though the finger of suspicion is pointed at Netanyahu, he has not yet been formally charged in the scandal. Two other serious charges of corruption against him relate to the illegal receipt of gifts in exchange for favours and underhand dealings with the publisher of the mass circulation daily Yedioth Adronoth.

Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid Party, who served as Finance Minister in an earlier coalition government led by Netanyahu, has revealed that he was pressured by the Prime Minister to enhance tax benefits for a movie producer, Arnon Milchan. The police have said that the tax breaks for Milchan, who has dual Israeli American nationality, were a quid pro quo for lavish gifts received by the Netanyahus. The Prime Minister, according to the police, also got lavish gifts from James Packer, an Australian billionaire, and Ratan Tata. Milchan and Ratan Tata allegedly got the Prime Minister to approve the setting up of a free trade zone along the Israel-Jordan border.

According to the Israeli police, the idea was to jointly manufacture the low-cost Nano car in the free trade zone as a joint venture in 2009. Ratan Tata admitted that he had drawn a concept plan for the venture at the request of a member of Israel’s security set-up. But according to the Tatas, there was no follow-up and the venture never took off. Ratan Tata denied that he had discussed the venture with Milchan and said that the project cost had never been discussed. The Israeli police have alleged that Milchan was behind the project and that he quoted $250 million as an estimated cost of the project. Ratan Tata did admit that Netanyahu was present at one meeting to discuss the project and had even suggested two preferred sites for the plant.

The project was shelved after the Israeli Defence Ministry vetoed it on grounds of national security. According to reports in the Israeli media, Ratan Tata was questioned by the Israeli police for more than two hours when he was in Israel to attend a business summit in November last year. His office issued a statement saying that their former chairman had at no time expressed or supported a view that Netanyahu was “involved directly and indirectly or derived any personal benefit from this project”. The statement from the Indian conglomerate went on to say that the allegations against Netanyahu “seem baseless and highly motivated”.

Lapid has emerged as the most serious political challenger to Netanyahu. His popularity ratings are rising even as the corruption charges against the Prime Minister are piling up. He recently stated that the Prime Minister should take responsibility and step down “while you are taking the majority of your time with lawyers and responding to the press”. The opposition leader said that it was high time Netanyahu realised that he could not represent the government of Israel “when every foreign leader that you meet knows that you have been accused of serious crimes”.

More stories about the sleaze and corruption that flourished under Netanyahu’s watch are surfacing. The Israeli media have been reporting that another of his aides was caught attempting to bribe a judge who was investigating charges of corruption against Netanyahu’s wife, Sara. She has been accused of misusing around $100,000 from funds meant for the upkeep of the Prime Minister’s official residence. The Attorney General stated in September last year that he intended to bring fraud charges against her.

The police have accused Nir Hefetz, a former spokesman of Netanyahu, of offering a bribe to a judge through an intermediary in 2015 to block any proceedings against Sara. The judge, according to the police, was also offered the Attorney General’s job if she delivered a favourable ruling in the case against Sara. Sections of the Israeli media describe the Netanyahus as “King Bibi and Queen Sara”. The couple was once again interrogated separately by the police on March 2. This is the eighth time that Netanyahu was questioned by the police in the last two years.