A team of investigators from the Lahav 433 Anti-Corruption Unit appeared at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem Jan 2. They carried several thick dossiers in their hands. The team was led by unit head Koresh Barnur. They entered the state residence and didn’t exit it until a little more than three hours later, marking the official beginning of an investigation into Netanyahu, under caution, for allegations involving breaching his duty of trust as a public servant.
Over the past 20 years, all of Israel’s prime ministers have undergone criminal investigations of one kind or another, and Netanyahu was the first, during his first term in office, 1996-99, on a series of issues, including accepting gifts and attempting to charge the state treasury for personal expenditures. Next in line were Ehud Barak (for the “fictitious straw companies” affair) and Ariel Sharon (for the Greek Island affair and funds involving the businessman Cyril Kern, among other issues). Then came Ehud Olmert, the first to be indicted and who was ultimately convicted and is now doing time in prison.
Netanyahu, even before the investigation against him began, adopted tactics to make it clear that he has no intention of caving. To the contrary, in fact, Netanyahu intends to leverage his popularity and recruit his supporters, mainly the growing right-wing Israeli public, to constantly repeat one message: that he is being subjected to a political investigation and political persecution. In a meeting of the Likud faction hours before the investigators arrived at his residence, Netanyahu claimed that he would not have come under investigation if he had had different policies. Instead, he said, he was being obsessively persecuted by the media. Many of his Likud supporters agree with his assertion.
Meanwhile, Knesset member David Amsalem of Likud is trying to revive an old bill that would give all sitting prime ministers immunity from investigation while in office. The bill's future is unclear, as is Netanyahu’s. If the investigation leads to an indictment being filed against Netanyahu, he will be forced to resign. If the case is closed, as in the past, he will emerge victorious and stronger than ever.
In April 2009, when Netanyahu returned to power for a second time as premier, almost eight years had elapsed. It almost seemed that this time around, he would be immune to police investigations. He put great effort into gaining as much control as possible over the agents of the rule of law: He appointed his personal attorney, Yehuda Weinstein, to the post of legal adviser to the government in 2010. The current legal adviser, Avichai Mandelblit, who assumed the position about a year ago, had been Netanyahu’s government secretary for three years and had worked closely with him. Netanyahu had also stirred the pot of police inspector generals and lengthened their terms. He also appointed Joseph Shapira as state comptroller. In short, the prime minister enjoyed long years of artificial peace and quiet, free of the police. That all ended this week.
The official investigation into Netanyahu was born after nine long and laborious months of what Mandelblit called a “police probe.” This strange beast is not quite a criminal investigation, is only rarely used and has no legal basis. In this regard, the legal adviser gave special treatment to the prime minister.
Several months ago, police sources told Al-Monitor that had anyone else been the target, the police would have started an investigation a long time ago. On the other hand, it is possible that Mandelblit has some justification for exercising excessive caution. He was well-aware that opening an investigation would immediately lead to a political witch hunt and anarchy that would spread to the broader public. As opposed to Olmert, who had been a very unpopular prime minister, Netanyahu enjoys the support of large segments of the Israeli public, and he is adept at leveraging this support. Mandelblit wanted to minimize the possibility of Netanyahu succeeding in spinning a story of “political persecution” or “dismissing a serving prime minister for irrelevant reasons.”
At the heart of the investigation are Netanyahu’s connections with businessmen, some of them living abroad, and his allegedly accepting significant favors from them. The prime minister’s relations with an impressive circle of billionaires is well-known to the media and the public. This state of affairs has been widely and continuously covered over the years. The police probe is looking into whether these relationships involved any criminal offenses being committed. According to the evidence collected to date, the suspicions are real and well-founded.
The media reported at least two businessmen (one Israeli and one foreign) admitting to having offered Netanyahu favors or expensive gifts. According to Channel 10, at least one case involves a gift that was given at a critical juncture at a very specific point in time, but it did not provide details. Thus it is likely that the gift-giver received some sort of “reward” from the prime minister, which may lead to a bribery-related indictment.
Sources at the Justice Ministry note that in addition to the gift affair, the investigation involves another, more serious allegation. Haaretz described the source of this suspicion as “earth shaking,” something that will generate a huge public uproar. The assumption is that the investigation launched Jan. 2 has not yet reached completion and that the prime minister will be questioned under caution at least once more. Meanwhile, Netanyahu will limit himself to the laconic statement he has used all along: “There won’t be anything, because there isn’t anything.”
The Israeli political system, however, does not accept this response as easily as it did in the past. Outwardly, everyone offers their heartfelt wishes to Netanyahu that he emerge from the investigation unscathed. Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid publicly asked the police and state attorney to wrap up the investigation as soon as possible and offered his blessings to Netanyahu for a positive outcome. Meanwhile, Lapid has emerged as the leading candidate for premier in a poll released Dec. 30 by Channel 10, winning 27 mandates versus 23 for Netanyahu. According to political sources, Lapid has said that he would prefer to defeat the prime minister at the voting booth.
Behind the scenes, however, the situation is completely different. As soon as gossip and rumors morphed into a real investigation, the entire political establishment went into a tizzy. Almost every senior member in Israeli politics wants Netanyahu to get off the political horse. His takeover of government institutions is blocking the paths of many good people to the highest echelons of politics. If Netanyahu quits, it is expected that former Ministers Gideon Saar and Moshe Ya'alon will return to the Likud. Perhaps serving Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon of Kulanu will do the same. Even such high-ranking Likud members as Ministers Israel Katz and Gilad Erdan won’t shed too many tears for the current prime minister, and they are in addition to the heads and senior members of all the other factions.
Netanyahu has now declared war against the police, the state attorney, parts of the independent media and senior members of the political establishment. He is convinced that he will win, but everyone else is not so sure.