Pressing charges and Netanyahu’s trials

My Word: Over the years, I have seen Netanyahu at his best and worst.

A man in a coffee shop in Ashkelon reads newspaper coverage of the prime minister's indictment last week.  (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A man in a coffee shop in Ashkelon reads newspaper coverage of the prime minister's indictment last week.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
It can happen to anyone. At the precise moment when all chatter stops and a room unexpectedly goes quiet, you make a comment under your breath that is heard by all. That’s what happened to me when I saw Benjamin Netanyahu at an impromptu press conference in the Knesset shortly after he was elected prime minister for the first time in 1996.
Netanyahu was asked a question by a news crew but couldn’t identify which one. “What channel are you from?” he asked, turning to face the camera. A rookie parliamentary reporter, I whispered, “What does it matter? They all hate you.”
In the sort of quiet when you could hear the proverbial pin drop, the comment seemed to reverberate, a painful pinprick in not particularly thick skin. “Who said that?” the prime minister wanted to know.
Over the years, I have seen Netanyahu at his best and worst. Recent weeks fall into the latter category. Although no longer covering him from up close, I have watched – like the rest of the country – as he has launched attacks on the press, police and judiciary.
Often I think there is a basis to his claims. There is a “Bash Bibi” brigade in the media, which has a voice and uses it – both against him and his wife, Sara. Those who didn’t want him as prime minister following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin have not softened over the years. On the contrary. Netanyahu has already been found guilty in the kangaroo courts presided over by many columnists. It was hard to escape the glee of many pundits discussing the prime minister’s fate in endless panels following the indictment announcement.
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit was placed in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation – by both Right and Left – and I wasn’t surprised that he decided to go ahead and indict the prime minister in three different cases, of fraud, breach of trust and one case of corruption. Now it will be up to the courts to make the final decision.
In a full-out attack, the prime minister told the nation last week that he was the victim of an “attempted coup” and called for an “investigation into the investigators.”
This was Netanyahu in L’état c’est moi (“I am the state”) mode. Netanyahu is convinced that no one can lead the country the way he has and hopes to continue.
“This is a hard and sad day,” declared Mandelblit before announcing his decision to press charges.
Every time a politician or leader has been found guilty in Israel it is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s proof that nobody is above the law. Democracy at its best. On the other, it’s hard to be proud of a situation in which a former prime minister, a finance minister, health minister, interior minister, a chief rabbi and many more national and local politicians have already served time in jail and a former president was imprisoned for rape. It’s difficult to see this as the country’s finest hour. Not all convictions are a sign of strength.
Like all other citizens, Netanyahu has the right to be presumed innocent. And his charges of systemic leaks from the police investigations should be looked into. The methods used also appear questionable at times, with indications that Nir Hefetz, Netanyahu’s former spokesman and confidant, was bullied into becoming a state witness. This seems to be more a case of rewriting the book than going by it.
Likewise, while police investigation after investigation was launched into the expenses of the Prime Minister’s Residence while Netanyahu has been living there, there was no similar probe into the costs and sources of funding of, for example, the late Shimon Peres’s annual birthday celebrations-turned-international conventions when he was president.
The most problematic charge the prime minister faces is that of bribery in Case 4000, the so-called Walla-Bezeq Affair. He is accused of granting regulatory favors to the tune of some NIS 1.8 billion to the former chairman of the telecommunications giant in return for positive coverage on the Walla website also owned by Shaul Elovitch. In Case 2000, he allegedly was willing to discuss with Yediot Aharonot publisher Noni Mozes receiving better coverage in return for weakening the paper’s main rival, Israel Hayom.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to find signs of systematic positive coverage anywhere other than Channel 20 (focusing on a religious Jewish audience) and Israel Hayom. This is the newspaper that Netanyahu’s rivals tried to close down via a tailor-made law – an attack on the free press and democracy if ever there was one.
EVEN THE prime minister’s many enemies admit that he has achieved a great deal, particularly in his most recent terms. Israel’s economy and international standing have greatly improved. One of the saddest aspects of the current political stalemate and Netanyahu’s woes is that the country is probably missing a golden opportunity on the diplomatic front while there is an undoubtedly friendly incumbent in the White House.
When I saw Netanyahu at work in the 1990s, his stamina and concentration were phenomenal. He would attend press briefings after all-night consultations, debates and budget talks and appear literally tireless, unlike many of the journalists he was talking to. Colleagues attest that even having just turned 70, he still has that ability to concentrate fully during the sort of stress and hard work that would bring the average younger person down.
But there is no denying that Netanyahu is obsessed with the media (and vice versa.) A few years ago, he called a series of meetings in his office with journalists from the country’s leading media outlets, including The Jerusalem Post. I found myself in the extraordinary position of having to apologize and leave before the end. After some four hours, I needed to get back to my regular work and I’m still amazed that Netanyahu did not feel the same need. (I refrained from muttering about it under my breath, however. I’d learned my lesson.)
Regardless of the eventual outcome of Netanyahu’s legal troubles he has clearly failed one important test of leadership. He has deliberately refused to mentor a potential heir. Acknowledging the need for a successor is the true mark of a leader. Netanyahu was too scared of having a rival with an interest in removing him. It was not by chance, however, that former Jerusalem mayor and Likud MK Nir Barkat this week suggested that the party devise a system of having a deputy who could take over as party leader if necessary.
At a time when there is a clear need for electoral reform, I believe that some version of the so-called French law would be a good idea – limiting the number of consecutive terms the prime minister could serve but providing immunity from police investigations and charges while in office. Just as nobody is above the law, it seems nobody in this position is going to be above allegations (note Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert before Netanyahu’s current term in office). The prime minister – whoever he or she is – needs to be able to dedicate their time and efforts to the job in hand, especially given the tense security situation.
More than 20 years after my debut debacle, it is clear that Netanyahu is still struggling with the country’s mainstream media and in his worst-case scenario this could also affect the chances of his receiving a fair trial. Similarly, his own attacks on the courts and State Attorney’s Office – and those of his son – are literally not helping his case. For the sake of the country he undoubtedly loves, Netanyahu must stop whipping up a frenzy. At the same time, the media, police and judiciary need to do some self-examination and make sure redlines are not being crossed.
The coverage following Mandelblit’s indictment announcement was a sign that the prime minister’s dream of a friendly press did not come true. When people tell me Netanyahu managed to influence the media in his favor I laugh out loud – even if all those around me are silent.