Tel Aviv Diary: Bibi Beset By Scandals

On Sunday morning, a special news bulletin interrupted regular TV broadcasts in Israel to report the latest revelations in the ongoing investigations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This time, the reports revealed the existence of a taped conversation between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Yediot Ahronot, a newspaper often critical of the prime minister. Netanyahu is heard promising, on tape, to take actions that would help Yediotif that would improve its coverage of the prime minister.

In most normal situations, the blockbuster nature of the broadcast would have dominated the conversations of the day. But two hours later, broadcasts were interrupted again, this time by the news that a driver had plowed a truck into a group of soldiers in Jerusalem, killing four people and injuring at least 10.

01_09_Bibi_Scandal_01 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, visits the scene where a Palestinian rammed his truck into a group of Israeli soldiers on a popular promenade in Jerusalem on January 8. Marc Schulman writes that before Monday is over, as the victims' families turn to their private mourning, the rest of the country will return to discussing a political scandal that a majority of observers believe provides the most serious challenge yet to Netanyahu as prime minister. Ronen Zvulun

This attack was a stark reminder that however sensational a political scandal might be, it never has the impact of the violence that has continued to occur here on a regular basis, for over 70 years, in a wide variety of manifestations.

Sunday’s attack had an especially strong impact for a number of reasons. First, the victims were overwhelming women soldiers who could have been the daughters of any Israeli.

Second, the attack took place at a location all Israelis have visited at one time—in fact, it’s a location almost anyone who has visited Israel has been to. In my case, it happens to be the location where we held the bat mitzvah celebration for one of my daughters 12 years ago.

Tel Aviv Diary: Israel braces itself for a submarine scandal

Sunday’s was not the first vehicular attack to take place in Israel, particularly in the past two years. However, after the recent devastating attacks in Nice, France, and Berlin, this incident has a special resonance.

The fact that a seemingly normal person, with a wife and child, could decide to turn a truck into a weapon with such deadly effect is both frightening and horrifying. In less than a minute, the driver was shot dead by an armed civilian and two of the soldiers. The incident was captured by a security camera, allowing Israelis and people around the world to watch what many would have preferred not to have seen—the moment when four young lives were wiped out.

In Israel, the victims are being buried the day after the attack. It is a day to reflect on what was lost: three young women and one young man, all in their 20s, who will never grow old—Yael Yekutiel, Shir Hajaj, Shira Tzur and Erez Orbach.

Nevertheless, before Monday is over, as these families turn to their private mourning—and as parents try to come to grips with the impossible—the rest of the country will return to discussing a political scandal that a majority of observers believe provides the most serious challenge yet to Netanyahu as prime minister.

Two separate criminal probes against Netanyahu are taking place. The first revolves around the receipt of presents from wealthy businessmen valued at thousands of dollars a month. One of those alleged to have given the expensive gifts is Arnon Milchan. In exchange, Netanyahu allegedly asked U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to extend Milchan’s visa to the United States.

Milchan is not the only wealthy individual who is being investigated for gifts to Netanyahu. A number of other businessmen have been questioned.

Israeli law clearly states that any receipt of gifts by public officials must be reported. Netanyahu’s lawyers have said the prime minister received these gifts but claim he got them from friends.

It is not clear how well that line of defense will stand up, especially in light of an earlier ruling involving former President Ezer Weizman, who received ongoing financial assistance from a group of wealthy friends.

That case came to a close when Weizman agreed to resign. However, in the written ruling there was a clear warning to future office holders: do not follow Weizman’s lead.

The second case being investigated involves a series of meetings between Netanyahu and Mozes during which the latter offered to provide positive coverage of Netanyahu in Yediot Ahronot if the prime minister convinced Yisrael Hayom, the free daily paper published by Sheldon Adelson, not to publish a Friday edition. A tape exists of one of these meetings.

The Friday edition of Yediot Ahronot is the only really profitable edition and provides 80 percent of the newspaper’s income. Legal observers believe that, since the value of what was being discussed was in the millions of shekels and there was a clear quid pro quo, criminality could be attached to such discussion.

Before the criminal nature of the discussion emerged, Netanyahu had depicted his fight with Yediot as a battle between the political right and left. The recently disclosed tape undermines those claims, reducing an ideological fight to one involving merely personalities and money.

Netanyahu has twice been “interrogated subject to warning” (similar to being read your Miranda rights in the U.S.) for a total of about 10 hours and is expected to be interrogated again. What additional evidence exists—and whether these cases are tied to a number of other scandals, including the one surrounding a questionable purchase of submarines from Germany—is yet to be determined.

The decision over whether to bring criminal charges against Netanyahu is ultimately up to the Israeli attorney general, who had previously served as Netanyahu’s Cabinet secretary and has worked closely with him.

Under the norms established in earlier cases, if criminal charges are lodged, Netanyahu will be obliged to resign. The irony is that the whole time he has been prime minister, both this time and last, he has had to work alongside Democratic U.S. presidents (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) whom he considered less friendly to Israel than Republican ones, to whom he has always had a natural affinity.

Now, on the threshold of Donald Trump’s Republican administration, Netanyahu needs to worry about how to remain in office.

Marc Schulman is the editor of Historycentral.com.

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