In one 24-hour period, the probes of the US president and the Israeli prime minister may have been turned upside down.
The key US official investigating President Donald Trump was fired, and likely the key Israeli official investigating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a highly unusual, strong public statement that favored Netanyahu.
The two events make it far more likely that the two leaders will get off the hook, while ensuring a permanent cloud of suspicion over whether the investigations were tampered with as part of a cover-up.
Trump on Tuesday fired FBI director James Comey, the man who is investigating whether he and at least four top associates of his criminally colluded in some way with Russia.
The biggest Trump casualty in this legal war so far has been the forced resignation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn for lying about discussing sanctions with Russia, but whether Trump or any associates assisted Russia’s hacking of the US election is also still in play.
The Israeli side is more subtle but possibly also more serious, legally.
Last week, one of the leaders of the prosecution team’s probe into Netanyahu, Tel Aviv Economic Crimes Unit director Liat Ben-Ari, made a series of statements about distinguishing legal gifts from illegal bribes or violations of conflicts of interest.
Her comments made it emphatically clear that she viewed most gifts to public servants – even in small amounts, let alone in the range of hundreds of thousands of shekels as Netanyahu reportedly received – as illegal, if there was even a small appearance of impropriety.
It was clear to most that she was commenting on the Netanyahu case – even if she at no time made an explicit connection.
Trump fires FBI chief Comey (credit: REUTERS)
On Tuesday, her boss, the country’s top prosecutor, Shai Nitzan, told Channel 10 that Ben-Ari’s comments had nothing to do with the Netanyahu case. He said they were meant as general comments or as comments on the Ehud Olmert and Binyamin Ben- Eliezer cases.
But the generally straight-shooting Nitzan’s comments were odd in this case and raise suspicions that he was trying to preemptively cut off any momentum for indicting Netanyahu.
First, Olmert’s and Ben-Eliezer’s cases do not match up well with Ben-Ari’s comments, comments that apply more to the facts of Netanyahu’s case.
Olmert and Ben-Eliezer were both accused of outright bribery and had clear power to be involved in a quid pro quo with those who gave them funds and other benefits.
With Netanyahu, little has been reported of any quid pro quo, so the question really does focus more on the question of whether small gifts given in the context of a general conflict of interest can be overlooked.
Second, what Ben-Ari did was provide her worldview on gifts to public figures. If she is tough on those gifts, then she will likely vote to indict Netanyahu, whether she was talking about him last week or not.
Why is Nitzan so important to Netanyahu’s fate? The basic lineup until now is that the police and some prosecutors likely want Netanyahu indicted, while the top legal official, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, and some prosecutors likely do not.
But Mandelblit worked for the prime minister and would be under a cloud of conflict of interest himself if he were to exonerate Netanyahu without putting the case to a judge.
Nitzan could be Mandelblit’s ace in the hole for staving off questions of a cover-up. If Nitzan, a career nonpolitical Justice Ministry official, backs Mandelblit’s decision, it would give him cover.
But Nitzan’s overt public statement may lose him some of that credibility and cost Mandelblit some of his cover.
Likewise with Comey, the statement issued by the Trump administration – that he fired Comey because of Comey’s treatment of Hillary Clinton and at the request of US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, does not hold water.
Trump and Sessions are both on public record during the campaign praising Comey for publicizing allegations about Clinton only 11 days before the election, in a move that some say decisively helped Trump at the finish line.
Rather, most observers, including some top Republicans, assume that Trump fired Comey because of his public comments about investigating Trump for collusion with Russia.
Trump has blasted anyone who has accused him of illegal contacts with Russia, and one spokeswoman explicitly called on Tuesday for “moving on” from the probe.
How will we know whether there is a cover-up, if the two national leaders get off without spending a day in court?
To remove the cover-up cloud, Trump will likely need to agree to a special prosecutor or appoint a new FBI head who is far above any reproach. In any decision not to indict, Mandelblit will need to reveal the full messiness of the different opinions of the prosecutors, so it can be seen that he had rankand- file support, since Nitzan alone is probably no longer enough of a shield.