Netanyahu continues to look the other way as pressure mounts

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, on November 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun

Thousands of young people marched in Tel Aviv over the weekend to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For the second week in a row, Israelis expressed their frustration with the mounting corruption charges being levied against their 68-year old premier, who has dominated the political scene, on and off, since 1996.

Some put the number of demonstrators at 10,000. According to a poll conducted by Channel 10, however, a whopping 66% of Israelis said that Netanyahu should resign “if indicted.”

Two cases are behind the current swell against the two-time prime minister and former foreign minister. The first involves receiving gifts worth thousands of dollars from Israeli film producer Arnon Milchan and Australian casino mogul James Packer.

Famed for his previous life in Israeli intelligence before moving on to produce blockbusters such as as JFK, Pretty Woman, and Mr and Mrs Smith, Milchan is reported to have showered Netanyahu and his wife Sara with cigars, champagne, designer suits and jewelry with a possible value of up to US$100,000. Netanyahu describes all of the gifts as commonplace between friends, denying that any secret strings were attached to them.

The second case involves the popular Israeli daily Yediot Ahronoth, well-known for being anti-Netanyahu. The Israeli premier reportedly tried to reach a deal with its owner, Arnon Mozes, to offer him more favorable coverage. This is a crime in Israel.

Other cases are piling up in Israeli courts, too – against Netanyahu’s wife and son, and his political ally David Bitan, who is believed to have collected bribes from businessmen to pay off a massive debt when he was serving as deputy mayor of Rishon LeZion, south of Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, is believed to have misused public funds to pay for private chefs and electricians at the family home, in addition to hiring a nurse for her aging father. And their son, Yair, is being sued by an Israeli think-tank for writing a Facebook post that accused them of being “a radical, anti-Zionist organization funded by the Fund for Israel’s Destruction.”

Instead of fighting off accusations, he ought to be celebrating. Last week, Donald Trump gave him the gift of a lifetime by recognizing Jerusalem as the ‘eternal capital’ of the State of Israel

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s personal lawyer, David Shimron, is believed to have acted as an intermediary during negotiations over the sale of German submarines to Israel. And the Netanyahu-appointed director general of the Ministry of Telecommunications, Shlomo Filber, is being questioned for illicitly allowing the country’s national telephone company to buy shares of YES, a satellite cable provider.

None of this is welcome for the all-powerful prime minister. Instead of fighting off accusations, he ought to be celebrating. Last week, Donald Trump gave him the gift of a lifetime by recognizing Jerusalem as the “eternal capital” of the State of Israel. Israeli history will say that this happened during the era of Benjamin Netanyahu. And if that is not enough reason to rejoice, Israel is bracing itself to mark its 70th anniversary in May — a milestone, no doubt, in the midst of little else but chaos and destruction throughout the Arab neighborhood. After all, countries that promised to annihilate the state of Israel, such as Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, have all collapsed into internal strife and a non- stop cycle of violence.

Trump’s announcement certainly distracts media attention, however briefly, from Netanyahu’s corruption charges, and gives him ammunition to use against his enemies. Look, he is able to say: if it were not for me, this wouldn’t have happened.

Israeli justice will not be swayed by such reasoning, however. Nine years ago, Ehud Olmert faced multiple corruption cases and took the decision to resign before an indictment was issued. Even then, he was subsequently dragged to prison in 2015, serving 16 months inside.

Legally, nothing protects Netanyahu from such a humiliating end — if he is found guilty. He insists that he won’t step down, telling supporters via Twitter: “It won’t happen!” While acknowledging receipt of the expensive gifts from Milchan, he still writes off the corruption accusations as “fake news.”

Over the weekend, as the crowds in Tel Aviv chanted anti-Netanyahu slogans, the prime minister looked the other way, boarding a plane for Paris and talks with President Emmanuel Macron.

In the Yediot Ahronoth case, a recording of Netanyahu’s discussions with the newspaper’s publisher was found on the phone of the premier’s former chief-of-staff Ari Harrow, who is standing as a state witness in the case. In August, Netanyahu scoffed at the notion of the case bringing about his downfall, posting a video on Facebook in which he looks at the camera and says: “I want to tell the citizens of Israel, I do not address background noise. I will continue to serve you.”

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