3/4/19 Netanyahu Indictment Impacts the Race
The Israeli political system is uncharted territory. For the first time, the Attorney General has informed a candidate, who happens to be the sitting Prime Minister, that that PM will be indicted pending a hearing. On Fox and Friends, host Pete Hegseth parroted the defense put forward by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters, i.e., that the charges alleged against Netanyahu are only about his accepting a few cigars from a friend (which Hegseth asserted “was a good thing”) and his receiving positive coverage in one or two news stories. Hegseth then went on to say that the prosecution of Netanyahu is an example of the “deep state” that cannot defeat Netanyahu any other way attempting to force him out.
However, the reality is very different. The initial police recommendations were made by Netanyahu’s hand-picked Police Commissioner, who grew up on the West Bank. Netanyahu also appointed the Chief Prosecutor, who also recommended the indictment. Finally, the Attorney General, who decided to go forward and make the announcement of the indictment pending a hearing public, also comes from a right-wing background and had been a close confidant of the Netanyahu, before the PM tapped him to serve as Attorney General, with the expectation the AG would shield him from investigation.
Furthermore, as the charge sheet presented by the Attorney General made clear, this case is definitively not about “a few cigars” and “coerced coverage in two positive news articles.” The Attorney General’s charge sheet ran over 50 pages. While I will not lay out the entire list of serious allegations here, it should be noted that the Attorney General cited gifts valued at over NIS 700,000 (approx $200,000)on cigars and champagne, along with jewelry for Sara Netanyahu, as part of just one of the three cases for which Netanyahu must answer.
The AG offered many specific examples that provide some understandable color to his decision to indict. According to one instance presented by the AG, when Arnold Milchen, (Netanyahu’s chief purveyor of cigars), was refused an American visa, he immediately called Netanyahu, who immediately contacted the American Ambassador with a request to intervene in support of Milchen. Subsequently, when that did not work, Milchen showed up at Netanyahu’s office with a case of champagne and requested that the Prime Minister call Secretary of State Kerry on his behalf, which Netanyahu did.
In Case 4000, the most serious of the cases against Netanyahu, the PM is accused of helping to secure regulatory approval worth NIS 1.8 billion for Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch. In Netanyahu’s defense, the Likud repeatedly insists Netanyahu never received anything of value from Elovich. The indictment, however, cites a lengthy list of things Elovitch did for Netanyahu — including fulfilling the PMs instruction to cut off the live coverage of the Zionist Parties’ rally in Rabin Square, days before the last elections, and his direction to send out millions of SMS messages publicizing the Likud’s rally a few days later.
Of course, the big question is whether any of these legal proceedings will impact the election. Talk about Netanyahu's corruption has been circulating for years. Netanyahu responded to these charges with claims it is all “a house of cards that will collapse, after his defense hearing”. Netanyahu also continues to insist the charges are merely the work of leftists trying to unseat him. Attacking “the leftists” has worked for Netanyahu in the past. Will it work again? Can Netanyahu successfully paint three of the living IDF Chiefs of Staff as leftists? Can the Police Commissioner, Chief Prosecutor and the Attorney General Netanyahu himself appointed all be “dangerous” leftist?
I set out to try to get the answer to that question, looking for Likud voters to interview. Indeed, the Likud received 17% of the vote in Tel Aviv last time — not all that far from the 25% support they received nationwide. Based on the results of my unscientific survey, if I was Netanyahu I would worry. The first person I interviewed, a young man, said: “They [politicians] are all corrupt”. When pressed whether he thought Netanyahu should remain Prime Minister, he said he guessed not, though he was not sure who would be better.
I then interviewed a couple who were arguing about what Netanyahu had done. The pair finally concluded that with so much smoke, there must be fire. One said they would still vote for Netanyahu, the other was unsure who to vote for, but insisted it would not be Netanyahu.
I asked the next person if he thought the indictment would affect the election results. He said he hoped not, and went on to say that all politicians are corrupt, and that he preferred a corrupt politician who could stand up to the world, than one who could not. Finally, I approached an older Likud supporter. He also asserted all politicians are corrupt, adding that he voted for Likud the last time, but regrets that decision. He shared that he was Druze (a non-Muslim Arab sect that has always been loyal to Israel). He continued that despite the fact most of the Druze had voted for Likud in the past, they were stabbed in the back by Netanyahu with the nation-state law and would never vote for Likud again.
The statistically insignificant sampling in my survey closely tracked the more scientific polling done by the Israeli media. For the first time, polls conducted by both Channel 13 and the National Broadcasting Authority, indicate Netanyahu no longer has the ability to form a government — with the center-left garnering 61 seats, compared to 59 for the right-wing/religious bloc. Both aforementioned polls, show the Blue and White Party, headed by Benny Gantz significantly ahead of the Likud.
Over the past ten years, Netanyahu has done an excellent job of convincing large segments of the public that leftists are dangerous figures who endanger the state. Over the next six weeks, he will do all in his power to convince enough voters that everyone who opposes him is indeed a danger to the security of the country. To Netanyahu, everything is fair game in his fight for survival. Will his tactics work? They have in the past, however, many believe that this time he might just come up short.