The Israeli attorney general’s plans to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of breach of trust, corruption, fraud and bribery are likely to cast a shadow on the April 9 election.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced Feb. 28 his decision to indict Netanyahu on charges related to three separate cases. Given the hearing and possible indictment will likely take place long after the election, possibly as late as 2020, there is uncertainty about how the election will play out.

“This is the most fraught political challenge Netanyahu has ever faced,” said Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives and Middle East program director at the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center, a nonpartisan policy forum on global issues. He has worked as an analyst, negotiator and adviser on the Middle East to both Democratic and Republican presidents.

“And if I had to bet on it ... by this July, he’ll surpass David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s greatest prime minister, to become the longest governing prime minister in Israel’s history, assuming he wins,” he said. “If he doesn’t win, I suspect he’ll cut a deal with the attorney general, who will drop all charges on condition he resigns from political life.”

Miller predicts if Benny Gantz, the center-left Blue and White party candidate challenging Netanyahu, wins the April 9 election and can pull together a coalition government, Israel will be less polarized. 

“You’ll have a bloc that has high proficiency in handling security challenges,” said Miller, a former Shaker Heights resident. “Whether it will lead to fundamental changes – with the Palestinians, with the Arab world, with the U.S., with Europeans – is unclear.” 

Miller said if Gantz wins, “you’ll end up with a more pragmatic government, particularly when it comes to the Palestinian issue,” adding Gantz would likely be more responsive to the sensibilities of Jews in the United States than Netanyahu has been.

Netanyahu’S legacy 

As prime minister, Netanyahu has raised Israel’s profile on the world stage, Miller said.

“Netanyahu, on balance, in many respects has been a very effective prime minister,” he said. “Israel now has more, broader diplomatic reach, with more countries recognizing the state of Israel – 160-plus – or with some form of diplomatic representation than at any time since the state was created.” 

He noted Netanyahu’s personal relationships with both President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin and Netanyahu’s decision to court dictators.

“In Asia, Latin America and Africa, states like China and India are prepared to do business with Israel because of Israel’s proficiency in high-tech and its military industries,” Miller said. “All this is happening with a right-wing government.

“He’s probably one of the most risk-averse Israeli prime ministers in history and has avoided deep involvement in Lebanon, in Gaza and, by and large –

even though his policies with respect to settlement expansion building in Jerusalem, particularly in East Jerusalem, have been pretty aggressive – he’s also, I think, exhibited a significant amount of restraint (regarding the) West Bank.”

Rabbi Peter Haas, the Abba Hillel Silver Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said Netanyahu has “created an aura” and a sense he is irreplaceable.

“Netanyahu has really, I think, made himself like he’s the guy who can keep Israel safe,” Haas said. “He’s the guy that can really have foreign success in getting other countries to recognize Israel. He’s the one who has really kept the economy going, nobody else can really pull all those three things off the way he can.”

Haas’ observation is in the American Jewish community, there is either great support or great cynicism for the prime minister.

“It’s really splitting the American Jewish community,” he said of Netanyahu, adding many college students feel less connected to Israel today than in past generations.

“Jewish college students by and large are not enamored with Trump, and I think they sort of identify Israeli politics with Trump. So, that’s coloring their perceptions as well.”

Attorney General’s case

The potential indictments stem from Netanyahu’s relationships and conversations with media magnates and billionaires in Hollywood, Australia and Israel. 

Netanyahu’s right to a hearing ahead of the indictment is awarded to a privileged few in Israel and will take place long after the elections, said Doron Kalir, clinical professor of law at Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland, who taught law in Israel and has argued cases before the Israeli Supreme Court. He read Mendelblit’s letter in Hebrew. 

The 57-page letter refers to three files labeled File 1000, File 2000 and File 4000, he said. 

He called File 1000, which pertains to Arnon Milchan, an Israeli ex-patriot who is a Hollywood producer, and Australian billionaire James Packer, “a classic breach of trust corruption case.” It involves the provision of cigars, jewelry and champagne gifted to Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, amounting to about $250,000.

“In return, Netanyahu helped them in a variety of issues,” Kalir said. 

File 2000 relates to Netanyahu’s alleged attempt to influence news coverage, Kalir said. After American businessman and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson bankrolled a free newspaper in Israel that was favorable to Netanyahu, Noni Mozes, publisher of what had been Israel’s leading newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, held discussions with Netanyahu in which Netanyahu said he would favor limiting Adelson’s free newspaper in return for more favorable coverage from Mozes’ newspaper. Recordings of those conversations were turned over to Israeli police.

“(Alan) Dershowitz has already commented on that,” said Kalir, adding American lawyer Dershowitz, in an open letter, maintained heads of state meet with publishers regularly, contending that is not a criminal act.

“But, of course it’s not that simple,” Kalir said. “It’s not the fact that they met or even discussed the content. It’s really the idea of the quid pro quo, that Netanyahu will get a much more favorable coverage, like influencing the editorial line of the paper in return to coming back to the No. 1 spot in Israel’s newspapers.”

Put simply, “He’s being indicted because the very conversation is conspiracy,” Kalir said.

File 4000 pertains to bribery involving Israeli media magnate Shaul Elovitch, owner of Israeli telecommunication company Bezeq and online news platform Walla News, Kalir said. 

As head of ministry of communications, Netanyahu asked for favorable coverage on Walla News.

According to pages 23 and 37 of the letter, which Kalir said is a binding document, Netanyahu influenced Walla News to repeatedly replay a video clip saying Arabs were moving in large quantities to the polls on the day of the last general election, March 17, 2015.

Polls at the time predicted the Labor Party would win the election.

“And, so, I don’t know if that’s the reason he won the election, but it didn’t hurt,” Kalir said.

Kalir said Netanyahu’s “vicious, personal attacks” against the attorneys working on his case has resulted in 24/7 protection by Mossad, the Israeli secret service.

“Currently, it’s not clear what the effect of this decision is on the election of Israel,” he said. “But there was already a 2-to-3 percent drop following the indictment. And we’ll have to see in another week what is happening in Israel.”

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