Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit with U.S. president and Twitter-pal Donald Trump couldn’t come at a better time for the beleaguered leader, who faces mounting corruption charges that has him fighting for his political life.
The Israeli leader arrived in Washington for a five-day trip where he’s expected to discuss shared concerns like Iran, Syria, and Palestinian peace negotiations with Trump. But the U.S. visit also doubles as a critical political lifeline for Netanyahu, who can play to his strengths abroad while temporarily distancing himself from the mounting pile of corruption probes he faces back home.
In this regard, the trip to America is “fortuitous,” said Shalom Lipner, a nonresident senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.
“His major ticket has always been, 'I’m the guy who best understands the United States,'” Lipner said. “Thousands of supporters at AIPAC [the annual policy conference] will give him a standing ovation. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
He needs the boost.
Netanyahu has tried to bat away one corruption charge after another for months, but the charges continue to stick. The Israeli police recommended last month that Netanyahu be indicted for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust for actions connected to two of the four corruption probes. Things appeared to get worse for Bibi on Monday, when Israel’s Justice Ministry announced that his former confidant and top media adviser Nir Hefetz had turned state’s witness against him in two of the four corruption cases circling the prime minister’s office.
Hefetz, whose association with Netanyahu dates back to 2009, is suspected of bribery and obstruction of justice in one of the cases against Netanyahu, and is a key figure in other investigations surrounding him. He’s the third, and most significant, of the prime minister’s former confidants to turn against him in the mounting graft investigations.
Netanyahu has taken a defiant, at times Trumpian, approach to the investigations and the 24-7 media coverage that’s trailed it, regularly posting directly to Facebook and Twitter to deny all the “outlandish” charge against him.
Yet his adamant insistence hasn’t stopped the Israeli political machine from pursuing one pressing question: Can Bibi beat back the crisis stalking his office and hold onto his fragile coalition government?
“Ultimately, there are two clocks ticking: legal and political,” said Lipner.
Netanyahu has hinted he could call a snap election to bolster his mandate in a bid to stave off political opportunists and mounting legal probes; polls suggest Israelis would reward him at the voting booth if he did so.
“This is pretty intense, but Netanyahu's faced — and braved — legal challenges before,” Lipner said, pointing to the previous crises that brought down Israel's ruling government. Still, he said there's no doubt “political piranhas are circling Netanyahu’s office.”
Here’s a rundown of the corruption cases against Netanyahu.
Israel police, seemingly aware of confusion about all the corruption cases, have made them a bit easier to follow by giving each one a numerical identifier: Case 1000, 2000, 3000, and 4000.
In case 1000, Netanyahu is accused of accepting nearly $300,000 in lavish gifts, including cigars and champagne, from Israeli billionaire businessman Arnon Milchan, a Hollywood producer, and Australian billionaire James Packer between 2007 and 2016.
Police say the gifts grew in “scope and frequency” after Netanyahu became Israel’s leader for a second time in 2009, and that Milchan’s gifts were given “in return for his action.”
Police argue that Netanyahu used his power as Israel’s leader to lobby on Milchan’s behalf to then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry regarding an issue the film producer had extending a U.S. visa. He also sought to legislate tax breaks in the mogul’s favor. Police haven't said what Packer is alleged to have gained from the relationship.
Last month, police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for accepting bribes, fraud, and breach of trust in relation to his dealings with Milchan, and for fraud and breach of trust in connection with Packer’s gifts.
The case now rests with state prosecutors and Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who will ultimately decide whether to file charges. Another of Netanyahu’s former confidants, former chief of staff Ari Harow, has testified against him in this case.
Police say that in 2009 Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth, a leading Israeli newspaper, struck a deal meant to serve their mutual interests. The bare bones of the alleged deal are that Mozes’s newspaper would provide flattering coverage of Netanyahu, and in return Netanyahu would support the publication, in part by working to hinder the growth of Israel Hayom, a free, right-wing rival publication funded by U.S. super-donor Sheldon Adelson.
It’s not clear whether the deal was ever acted on, but the police case hinges on voice recordings of meetings between Netanyahu and Mozes that were covertly taken by Harow, now a state's witness in this case.
Police recommended last month that in this case, Netanyahu should be charged with requesting a bribe, fraud, and breach of trust. They recommended Mozes be charged with offering a bribe.
Again, the decision on whether to file charges rests with Israel’s attorney general.
This case probes alleged kickbacks in a multibillion-dollar deal to buy submarines and patrol boats from German firm ThyssenKrupp — specifically, that state officials were bribed to make the purchase, despite opposition to the deal from the Defense Ministry.
The people allegedly involved in the scheme include Miki Ganor, the company’s sales representative in Israel, top Israeli defense officials and senior aides to Netanyahu, including the prime minister’s lawyer and confidant David Shimron.
Netanyahu is not a suspect, but he was closely involved in the deal, and Mandelblit has said he will be questioned.
The latest investigation centers on whether people close to Netanyahu pushed financial and regulatory perks worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel’s largest telecom, Bezeq, in exchange for favorable coverage of the prime minister on a subsidiary news site called Walla.
Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, were questioned by police for five hours Friday as possible suspects, the eighth time he has been formally questioned over various police matters in the past 14 months.
The police interview followed the arrests of seven others implicated in the probe last month, including two individuals close to the prime minister, Hefetz, and former Communications Ministry Director-General Shlomo Filber.
Shaul Elovitch, Bezeq’s controlling shareholder and a family friend of Netanyahu’s, was also arrested, along with his wife and son, and Bezeq CEO Stella Handler. Iris Elovitch, a friend of Netanyahu’s wife, is alleged to have received messages from her with instructions on what shape the coverage should take.
Filber, a longtime aide to the premier, has turned state's witness; the news on Monday that Nefetz, Netanyahu’s official spokesman from 2009 to 2010 and a media adviser to his family between 2014 and 2017, had joined him will “be nothing less than an earthquake,” Chemi Shalev, a columnist for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper wrote Monday.
“Hefetz was at the crossroads of virtually everything,” Shelev wrote. “He can testify to all four of the ‘major’ investigations in which Netanyahu is involved or implicated… Hefetz was the agent of Netanyahu’s ugliness and, if he tells all, Netanyahu is supposedly done for.”
Netanyahu has also been linked to another scandal, in which Hefetz is alleged to have made an offer in 2015 to a judge, Hila Gerstel, that she would be appointed attorney general if she blocked an investigation into Sara Netanyahu. Gerstel refused the alleged bribe. Sara, meanwhile, was indicted in September 2017 for fraud and breach of trust for excessive spending on catering at the prime minister's residence.
Cover image: U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump welcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mrs. Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 5, 2018. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)