Last week, the political drama in the United States and Israel was more powerful than anything Hollywood could have produced. On Feb. 27, President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, told a congressional committee that Trump is a “con man” and a “cheat.” The following day, the attorney general of Israel, Avichai Mendelblit, suggested there is a reasonable chance Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a conman and a cheat, too.
Mendelblit announced his intention to indict the prime minister for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, subject to a pre-indictment hearing. It is to Mendelblit’s credit that, even though he was a trusted aide as cabinet secretary to Netanyahu, now as attorney general, appointed by Netanyahu, Mendelblit has demonstrated the independence his job requires by deciding the law requires him to file an indictment against his former boss. It’s also a tribute to the Israeli justice system that the most powerful person in the country is not above the law.
The timing of the decision could not have been more dramatic, coming just over a month before Knesset elections on April 9. Netanyahu has called the timing unfair, but he has no one but himself to blame, because he didn’t need to call elections until November. He moved them up, knowing a decision on three pending criminal investigations against him was imminent.
In fairness to the prime minister, he is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and theoretically, he and his lawyers could persuade Mendelblit at a pre-indictment hearing to reconsider filing indictments. I think that’s highly unlikely, however.
The prime minister has been questioned repeatedly by the police in the cases and Mendelblit even assembled a “devil’s advocate” team, whose job it was to poke holes in the case against the prime minister. Yet, the attorney general still decided there was a reasonable chance of obtaining a conviction.
The first case against the prime minister involves allegations, at least in general, Netanyahu doesn’t seem to deny – that he received lavish gifts of champagne and cigars from Israeli Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer over an extended period. The prime minister insists there is nothing illegal about accepting gifts from friends, but the evidence suggests the Netanyahu family would put in orders for these so-called gifts, which were cumulatively worth about $200,000.
I have close friends. None of them has given me $200,000, but then again, I’m not the prime minister. And that’s precisely the point. My friends don’t expect anything in return. This case will turn on whether the gifts to Netanyahu were a quid pro quo for prime ministerial favors.
The other two cases involve suspicions, some of which appear to be backed by detailed evidence, that Netanyahu sought to influence the coverage of two of the country’s major media outlets, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily and the Walla news website – in exchange for favorable government regulatory policy. In the Walla case, the Netanyahu family allegedly blatantly interfered with the website’s coverage.
The pre-indictment process will take months, but I don’t think this will end well for Netanyahu. According to the polls, he has been running a risk that he will lose the April election to former army chief of staff Benny Gantz. His legal entanglements now make that prospect even greater.
Israeli leaders should be held to the highest possible standards rather than simply refraining from being con men and cheats. In light of what is indisputably known about Netanyahu’s conduct, he should resign. As Benny Gantz has put it: “We’ll take it from here.”
Cliff Savren is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East for the Cleveland Jewish News from Ra’anana, Israel.