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Dysfunctional politics and disgraceful behavior

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The criminal charges recommended by the Israel Police against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the politicians’ and media’s reactions amount to perhaps the most scandalous political imbroglio in Israel’s history.

This is not to say that Netanyahu should not be criticized for insensitive and hedonistic behavior. We look back nostalgically to the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, whose lifestyle was the antitheses of ostentatious.

But the current orchestrated effort by the police and media is the culmination of decades of efforts by Netanyahu’s adversaries to delegitimize and slander him and his family. It is directed against a prime minister who has proven outstanding leadership in the international diplomatic arena and is largely responsible for having transformed Israel into a financial and military superpower.

Ever since he was elected to lead the Likud and especially after he became prime minister, the mainstream media – apart from Israel Hayom – has ceaselessly sought to besmirch him and his family. No other democratic leader has been continuously vilified to such an extent. The liberal Israeli media has had more front-page coverage of Netanyahu’s alleged personal failings and vague accusations of corruption than coverage of the turbulent and bloody events in the region that threaten our very survival.

The principle that a person be deemed innocent until proven guilty was never applied to Netanyahu, who has for years been accused of bribery and corruption.

Over the past two years, the police invested inordinate sums of money and employed massive manpower, both locally and overseas, in a desperate effort to find a smoking gun in relation to the prime minister. Based on what was disclosed upon release of the police recommendations, it would appear that they failed. Yet in a scandalous breach of accepted practice, every shred of gossip hinting at Netanyahu’s guilt was leaked to the media.

The ultimate outrage was a TV interview with Israeli Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh in the week prior to the release of the police recommendation that Netanyahu be charged with bribery. He clearly lost the plot when he unleashed a tirade against the prime minister, predicting that he would soon be charged with two major acts of corruption. He also effectively confirmed that he had been leaking confidential police data to the media. To top it off, he implied that Netanyahu had orchestrated the engagement of private investigators to monitor the police inquiries. Yet, when challenged, he refused or was unable to provide an iota of evidence to substantiate these allegations.

In any normal democracy, a police commissioner breaching his duties on any of these issues would be dismissed. In our dysfunctional system, Alsheikh carries on as usual.

After two years of digging under every stone, real or imagined, the police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted on two charges of bribery and corruption.

The first charge was accepting bribes in return for favors to Israeli-born billionaire Arnon Milchan and Australian tycoon James Packer. Netanyahu was accused of receiving large quantities of cigars and champagne, amounting to about a million shekels ($280,000) over the course of a decade.

What evidence did the police disclose that Milchan’s gifts amounted to a bribe with a quid pro quo? They claimed that Netanyahu intervened with the U.S. secretary of state and U.S. ambassador to obtain a visa for Milchan. But the prime minister was entitled to do so, and this would have been an appropriate intercession on behalf of Milchan, who was involved in clandestine intelligence activity for Israel. Netanyahu pointed out that the late President Shimon Peres made a similar intervention to the U.S administration on behalf of Milchan, yet no eyebrows had been raised.

The supposed smoking gun in this case was testimony by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who alleged that when he was finance minister, Netanyahu sought – unsuccessfully – to double the existing 10-year period of tax exemption on foreign income of Israeli émigrés returning to their native country, which would have immensely benefited Milchan.

The fact is that no such legislation was ever even tabled and it was immediately rejected by the Finance Ministry. It is not even clear whether Lapid is claiming that he was under pressure by Netanyahu to advance the legislation, or that Netanyahu merely asked him to review the proposal, for which Milchan had lobbied. But even if Lapid claims that he was under pressure, it is highly debatable if a court could convict Netanyahu based on the testimony of Lapid, who has been frenziedly attacking Netanyahu with the objective of displacing him as prime minister.

It is also not clear if Lapid initiated his testimony or if the police approached him, obligating him to provide full and frank testimony in response to questioning. However, aware that he is a key witness, his mistake was to lead the attack on Netanyahu by calling for his resignation even before the police recommendations were released. This has raised doubts about his credibility among the Israeli public and may ultimately jettison his ambition of replacing Netanyahu as prime minister.

The second charge appears, on the surface, to be even more ludicrous. Netanyahu was alleged to have offered a bribe to Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes in a backroom deal according to which Netanyahu would persuade Sheldon Adelson, the owner of Yedioth’s main competitor, Israel Hayom, to curtail its booming weekend edition, in return for Mozes ending Yedioth’s defamation campaign against the prime minister.

In fact, it was Mozes who initially approached Netanyahu with a view to reaching an arrangement, which was never actualized. Far from an accommodation with Mozes to promote Yedioth Ahronoth, Netanyahu deflected efforts by the Knesset to pass the so-called Israel Hayom bill, which would have made the distribution of free newspapers illegal.

The reality is that this entire incident was mere chatter initiated by the other party and never implemented. Netanyahu claims that he had no intention of proceeding. So there simply is no case.

That a prime minister seeks to build good relations and influence the media by cozying up to editors has been a hallmark of former leaders as well as many ministers. How the police could construe this as bribery is mind-boggling.

All in all, we have a case of Netanyahu accepting large quantities of cigars and champagne as gifts from close friends. This may be unpalatable to most Israelis but it is certainly not clear that it represents corruption or a breach of the law.

There have been new developments in relation to the Bezeq investigation over the last few days but as this is only at a preliminary stage of the police investigation, it is impossible to assess its implications. One would hope after what has transpired that this latest ”discovery” remains grounded on factual evidence without leaks and wild conspiracy allegations.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit will ultimately determine how to proceed with the police recommendation to charge Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. This process will likely take many months and could stretch on until mid-2019.

My prediction is that Netanyahu will be exonerated on the serious charges of bribery and fraud which, based on what has been disclosed to date, appear to lack any real substance. If so, this will be recorded as one of the most disgraceful episodes in Israel’s dysfunctional political history. In the meantime, his government, including future candidates for Likud leadership, has united to back him. But there is no doubt that, until resolved, it will cast a shadow on his leadership.

The question remains whether, under the weight of public pressure and police agitation, Mendelblit will feel obliged to offer a token indictment of breach of trust in relation to the gifts. While this would not necessarily involve a criminal charge or result in any prison sentence, it still could force Netanyahu to resign. This too would be a travesty as no other prime minister has been investigated under such scrutiny.

There are certainly legitimate concerns that can be raised about the gifts and Netanyahu’s hedonistic lifestyle. But, in the absence of any substantive objective evidence of bribery or criminal activity, distaste for Netanyahu’s weakness is not sufficient grounds for “breach of trust,” let alone the more serious charges recommended by the police.

It is the people in the voting booths who should determine the future of the prime minister, not the demonizing efforts of the police and the media.

We currently face crucial threats from our enemies. There is no other Israeli capable of stepping into Netanyahu’s shoes during this critical period, which could erupt into war. His diplomacy and experience are crucial in retaining an equilibrium between the United States and Russia.

Most Israelis, whether they like or despise Netanyahu as a person, recognize that replacing him today with Lapid, Labor party head Avi Gabbay or other aspiring leaders could lead to catastrophic consequences.

We should exert maximum pressure on those who continue seeking to besmirch Netanyahu to desist and enable him to fulfill his role without being continuously distracted.

This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom, as well as an abridged version in Israel Hayom Hebrew edition.



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