It was as if Yitzhak Molcho knew the police were coming for him. Just 10 days before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s longtime confidant was arrested on Sunday, Molcho announced that he was stepping down from his post as the PM’s special diplomatic envoy.
Netanyahu didn’t hold back the compliments: “It is not yet time to reveal what you have done,” he told Molcho, “but I am sure that when that time does come, the Israeli public will have a tremendous appreciation for your contribution.”
Ten days later, on Sunday, Molcho was arrested at his home and taken to the Lahav 443 police unit’s headquarters in Lod for 15 hours of questioning with his brother-in-law and law firm partner, David Shimron.
There is no underestimating Molcho’s importance to Netanyahu.
If Shimron was Netanyahu’s personal “interior minister” – the man responsible for dealing with all of his domestic legal troubles and political negotiations – Molcho was his “foreign minister,” and far more than that. During Netanyahu’s four terms as prime minister, Molcho was there at all of the important diplomatic junctures.
In the late 1990s, the quiet, Jerusalem-born lawyer was Netanyahu’s point man in the negotiations with the Palestinians, a role he continued in 2013-2014 when he and Tzipi Livni made up Israel’s negotiation team in what were known as the Kerry talks. He was also the main contact for senator George Mitchell, appointed in 2009 by US president Barack Obama to advance peace; played a role in the 2011 Gilad Schalit prisoner swap; and since then has been the lead emissary for anything related to Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states.
In a country that hasn’t had a foreign minister for the last three years, Molcho has pretty much filled that role, to the extent that foreign ambassadors, after presenting their credentials to the president, have often tried to get their next important meeting with him.
He was the ultimate consigliere, the man who could be trusted as a voice of reason, who would never leak to the press and who would serve his boss faithfully. In short, a modern day Tom Hagen, the fictional confidant of The Godfather.
If police suspicions are right, Molcho crossed a line and got himself mixed up in Case 3000, the police probe into Israel’s decision to purchase submarines and other vessels from ThyssenKrupp, a German shipbuilder.
Prime ministers have the right to appoint confidants to serve in key and discreet positions. Almost all of them used them. In his first term, in addition to Molcho, Netanyahu sent Ronald Lauder to explore the possibility of peace talks with the late Hafez Assad in Syria. Ariel Sharon used Dov Weissglas, a lawyer who became his chief of staff and diplomatic emissary.
The difference was that Weissglas left his law firm behind when he joined the government. Molcho and Shimron didn’t. They continued to work privately and therein lies the problem.
While Shimron claims that he never spoke about the navy vessel deal with Netanyahu, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Miki Ganor – ThyssenKrupp’s representative in Israel who has now turned state’s witness – didn’t think about his lawyer’s close ties with the prime minister and the clout he had throughout the government before retaining his firm.
The same applies to Molcho. While he might have built – as sources close to him have claimed – a “Chinese Wall” between his business dealings and diplomatic work, potential clients were also most definitely attracted by Molcho’s close ties with Netanyahu when considering which lawyer to hire.
This was the case for a number of clients who, when considering legal representation, figured that Shimron-Molcho would be the best due to their obvious connections throughout the government.
The pair’s power stemmed not just from Molcho’s diplomatic missions, but possibly even more so from the work Shimron has done for Netanyahu over the years as the Likud’s main negotiator in coalition talks. After the last election in 2015, party leaders met with Shimron to negotiate the terms of their entry into the government. This status gave him access to every ministry and minister.
It remains to be seen if Shimron and Molcho are corrupt, and it is definitely possible that the police will ultimately clear them both of the suspicions against them. Based on earlier announcements by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, we already know that Netanyahu is not a suspect in the navy vessel case.
But even if both lawyers are cleared of the suspicions against them, this doesn’t mean that they, and Netanyahu, are not guilty of allowing a corrupt culture to permeate Israel’s governmental institutions. Netanyahu never should have allowed Molcho and Shimron to work as his close advisers as long as they were still working in the private sector. It was his responsibility to prevent conflicts of interest like this from happening.
Even if no crime were committed, he is still responsible for allowing the two lawyers to take advantage of the two worlds they were able to slide between – government and the private sector. They could publicize their firm as specializing in the communications industry, and at the same time work for the prime minister who also once served as the communications minister. It might not be illegal, but it sure as heck didn’t pass the smell test.
These are things that simply should not be done. There needs to be a clear divide between the government and the private sector, and the people who work in both. Positions like those held by Shimron and Molcho – however noble their service to the state might have been – should not be allowed any longer in Israel’s government.
One hopes that will be the most immediate takeaway from the navy vessel affair. However, the deeper issue at play here has to do with the way Netanyahu sees his role as prime minister.
In private conversations, he gives the impression of a man under siege. Everywhere he looks, he sees crises. His wife, Sara, is facing an indictment in the Prime Minister’s Residence affair and his oldest son, Yair, can’t seem to control his mouth or his Facebook page postings. The two investigations against Netanyahu – the graft probe and the Yediot Aharonot
affair – are still ongoing, and don’t look they will be going away anytime soon.
While he claimed last week that the legislation being proposed to “save” him from the investigations is being pursued against his wishes, the Knesset approved in a preliminary vote on Wednesday a bill that would ban the police from giving prosecutors a recommendation at the conclusion of an investigation.
The Knesset doesn’t care suddenly about investigations against the average Israeli. This bill is being pushed for the sole purpose of helping Netanyahu, who fears that a police recommendation to indict him would chip away at his image as a man-of-the-people among Likud voters. Even without an indictment, such a recommendation would be extremely damaging ahead of the next election.
It has always seemed that Netanyahu’s reliance on non-government officials like Molcho and Shimron, as well as his refusal to appoint a foreign minister for the last three years – itself astounding considering Israel’s diplomatic challenges – is part of a larger disdain he has for government institutions.
A number of people who have worked for Netanyahu in recent years describe him as someone who doesn’t really have “advisers.” Instead, he views his staff – some of whom are extremely talented and of high caliber – as “assistants,” people who do his bidding, since in his mind no one is truly capable of giving him advice.
Then there is his alliance with David Bitan and Dudi Amsalem, two Likud MKs known for their vulgarity and crudeness, to advance his anti-police legislation, as well as his decision to take Culture Minister Miri Regev – possibly the most extreme member of his cabinet – with him to London last week.
Why would the man known for being one of Israel’s finest diplomats surround himself with politicians who are his polar opposite and beneath him in experience, gravitas and respect? Your guess is as good as mine.
There is no question that Netanyahu is experienced, gifted, and one of the most important leaders today on the world stage. But a lot of what is happening now is the result of someone for whom the lines have started to blur between what is right, what is wrong, and what simply stinks.
Getting rid of his consiglieres will show the public that Netanyahu still knows the difference.