Thursday, February 28, 2019, will be remembered as a historic day for Israel. A sitting prime minister has been informed – pending a hearing – that he will be indicted. The charges, it is important to keep in mind, are for crimes he allegedly committed as Israel’s leader.
Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, stepped down as prime minister in 2009 and resigned from politics after the initial police recommendation that he be indicted. He ended up being sent to jail, but in contrast to Netanyahu, the crime he was convicted of – taking a $15,000 bribe – was when he was mayor of Jerusalem, years before he became Israel’s prime minister. The indictments against Netanyahu refer to crimes he is suspected of committing over the last few years while serving as Israel’s prime minister.
More than historic though, Thursday will be remembered as a sad day, not just for the people who support Benjamin Netanyahu and believe he is innocent and the victim of political persecution, but also for those opposed to Netanyahu and the policies he has led for the last 10 years as Israel’s powerful prime minister.
For all Israelis, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum, this is not a day to be proud of. Yes, it shows that no person is above the law; but it will have a long-term negative impact on the country and its electoral process.
From the outset of these elections, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit was in an impossible situation. On the one hand, if he delayed his decision until after April 9, it would have seemed like he was giving Netanyahu – his former boss – preferential treatment. On the other hand, by announcing his decision before Israel goes to the polls, he exposes himself to accusations of election interference.
His argument is that investigations need to move on a timeline that is – as much as is possible – independent of any external interference. The reason for this is simple, and we basically saw it play out a couple of months ago. If politicians – prime ministers or other party leaders – know that elections will delay criminal investigations, they will potentially use their political power to topple governments if they feel threatened. Basically, that is what Netanyahu tried to do when he broke up his coalition in December.
This has the potential to be terrible for a democracy.
THE IMPACT Mandelblit’s announcement will have on the elections is too early to tell. Initial polls will likely show a loss for Netanyahu, but in the weeks that follow he might actually gain votes.
Some people who were not planning to vote for Netanyahu might view what Mandelblit did as political interference, and rally behind the embattled leader. What is more likely is that some Likud voters – the more moderate ones – will leave the party and vote for one of the smaller right-wing parties led Yisrael Beytenu or New Right. Benny Gantz’s Blue and White also stands to gain.
In short, from Thursday, Netanyahu is boldly going where no Israeli prime minister has gone before. How this ends remains to be seen.
What adds to the sadness is that the indictments could have been avoided. Last summer, Jerusalem Post legal correspondent Yonah Jeremy Bob revealed that Mandelblit was prepared to close the cases against Netanyahu if the prime minister agreed to resign from political life. It was a similar offer made to and accepted by former president Ezer Weizman, when allegations surfaced in the late 1990s that he had received illegal payments from businessmen before becoming president. Instead of drawing out a long investigation, Weizman left office and went home. The case was closed.
Netanyahu rejected this option. He famously declared over and over: “There will be nothing, because there is nothing,” whenever asked about the possibility that he would be indicted. Today, he will no longer be able to say that with the same confidence. While he is a strong politician and statesman, he is also a regular human being. He remembers what happened to Olmert as well as the slew of other powerful Israeli politicians who were indicted, convicted and jailed before him. The possibility that this will happen to him has to be crossing his mind.
That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t fight for his innocence. If he believes he can win, he should. But we also need to remember that there is a country here that is greater than any single leader. Israel is not dependent on any single person, and the judicial system needs to be preserved no matter what happens. It would be wrong for people to feel disenfranchised due to Mandelblit’s decision, but it would also be bad for Israel if people lose faith in the justice system and feel that it has been overtaken by politics.
In the more immediate term, Israel’s election campaign will, beginning Thursday, increase in negativity. Netanyahu’s adversaries will play up the corruption charges, while he will need to throw back whatever he can. Already this week, a 40-year-old sexual allegation was posted on Facebook against Gantz with the apparent involvement of the Likud’s Miri Regev.
Remember that there are still 40 days left before elections. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, Israel needs to come first: this is a land that took 2,000 years for Jews to return to, and a state in the making just 70 years old.
Let’s protect it.
Two months ago, I wrote a column about China and its growing involvement in Israeli infrastructure projects. From ports to light rails and the excavation of tunnels, China is everywhere today in Israel.
On land, Chinese companies are building kilometers of tunnels in Tel Aviv and at sea and a Chinese company is close to completing the construction of the new Ashdod Port, while another is already starting to manage the Haifa Port.
Other projects that Chinese companies have expressed an interest in are the Jerusalem Light Rail’s Green Line, extending to the south of the city; Tel Aviv’s Green and Purple light rail lines; the proposed Eilat-Tel Aviv railway; and the new Sorek 2 desalination plant. Chinese companies are also competing to supply Israel with locomotives for its light rail systems in deals that could reach billions of shekels.
All of this has been noticed in Washington, which is engaged in a fierce trade war with China. When the Chinese complete their takeover of the Haifa Port, the US Navy has said that it will stop docking there.
Over the last few weeks, officials have told me that the growing Israeli-Chinese relationship could impact how America shares intelligence with Israel. While the officials acknowledged that America woke up a bit late to the growing Chinese presence in Israel, they said that Israel needs to take steps to minimize the risk – to Washington as well as to future military cooperation between the US and Israel.
As it seemed at the time, Israel did not properly consider the strategic ramifications of allowing the Chinese to be involved in so many infrastructure projects. As it often seems to be the case in Israel, there is short-term perspective but no long-term consideration. This seemed like another perfect example.
This week, I learned more about the process through which the Chinese won the Israel Port Authority tender to operate the Haifa Port. In the beginning, SIPG – the Shanghai International Port Group – was one of five companies bidding for the deal. Three were from Europe, one from China and the other from the Philippines. One European company was disqualified during the initial prequalification phase, and then the Philippines company backed out. Another one of the European companies decided to focus on the Ashdod Port, which it won.
This left SIPG and one European company. While the Chinese company was selected, both received all of the tender documents to look at, including a special security annex that had to be signed by the defense minister and the transportation minister.
The security annex took more than a year to negotiate, and includes strict obligations for how SIPG manages the port.
The company, for example, has to provide Israeli security services with 24/7 access to the CCTV camera system at the port; it needs to give the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) the right to enter the port whenever it wants to search the premises and cordon off areas as it sees fit; in times of war, it needs to allow the Israel Navy to commandeer the port; and finally, the IT director of the port needs to be Israeli and approved by the Israel Police.
None of this is trivial or easy for any company to accept, let alone one from China. The conditions, though, were accepted, and were signed in May 2015 by Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s then-defense minister, and Israel Katz, the current minister of transportation. The annex was approved by the IDF, the Shin Bet, the National Security Council and the Defense Ministry.
A few weeks ago, executives at the Israel Port Authority met with a group of officials from the US Embassy to brief them on the Haifa Port and try to ease their concern over the Chinese presence there. It seems that the message got across – and in recent weeks the US has toned down its criticism of the deal. At the same time, the Israeli government has set up a special committee to review future foreign investments, especially those in critical infrastructure.
Israel is not going to cancel the deal with SIPG to operate the Haifa Port, and it probably shouldn’t. Doing so after the deal was signed and implemented would not just cause a crisis with Beijing, but would also turn off future multinational companies from coming to invest in Israel if they know that even after a deal is signed, the government can overturn it.
What can change, though, is for the government to understand that what might seem like innocent business deals are capable of having long-term impact on the country’s national security. Worth keeping in mind for whoever wakes up April 10 as Israel’s new prime minister.
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