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The Netanyahu Investigations

The Netanyahu Investigations

How the Israeli prime minister's scandal could spoil what should be his perfect political moment




TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—These should be a heady days for Benjamin Netanyahu. Over the past year, the prime minister of Israel’s savvy political maneuvers both expanded his coalition and undermined his opposition. The Knesset recently passed an unusual two-year budget, which buys him a long period of political calm. And for the first time in his 11 years as prime minister, he now has a Republican counterpart in Washington who seems to support his government without reservation. Instead, he finds himself at perhaps his most politically vulnerable.

This month, investigators from the national police anti-fraud unit questioned Netanyahu twice at his Jerusalem residence over his alleged acceptance of tens of thousands of dollars in gifts—cigars, suits, and the like—from wealthy businessmen. One of those accused was Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan (producer of Pretty Woman and other hit films), who was alleged to have sought the prime minister's help in securing a long-term U.S. visa. Netanyahu, according to his lawyer Ya’akov Weinroth, insisted that these were simply gifts between friends, and denied any charge of a quid pro quo. Investigators have said they will soon pay him a third visit. But fallout from the corruption investigation could ultimately see Netanyahu ousted, and perhaps even prosecuted. A few commentators have likened Netanyahu to a Moses figure dying on Trump’s doorstep after eight years spent wandering in the Obama desert.



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Netanyahu is Israel’s second-longest serving prime minister, and he has already announced plans to run for a fifth term in 2019. He has spent years elevating loyalists to key positions and consolidating control of the government: at one point last year, he held four separate cabinet posts. And yet these very efforts—and in particular his fixation on the Israeli media—may also have sown the seeds for his own downfall.

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In an earlier era of Israeli politics, Netanyahu’s current problems might have been career-enders. The late Yitzhak Rabin resigned in 1977 amid reports that he and his wife held a foreign bank account (at the time, a misdemeanor) which contained $10,000 of their own money. But corruption and scandal have since become more pervasive, and, consequently, less shocking. Israel’s three previous prime ministers were all investigated for graft; one, Ehud Olmert, is serving an 18-month prison term. The interior minister, Aryeh Deri, is a convicted felon, jailed for taking bribes during a previous stint at the same ministry. “We used to be a very homogeneous society where nobody had a lot of money,” Ifat Zamir, the head of the Israeli branch of Transparency International, told me. “But the world changed in the 1990s. Some people made a lot of money, and suddenly the cigars become okay.”

The Netanyahus have long occupied pride of place in this crowded field of wealth-seekers. In 1994, a Jerusalem paper wrote about the family’s penchant for dining and dashing. Their appetites grew after Netanyahu became prime minister for a second time in 2009: a $2,500 contract for gourmet ice cream at their official residence, and a $127,000 bed installed on a government plane so they could nap on the five-hour flight to London. Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, has been investigated for stealing patio furniture, and his son, Yair, for accepting free Mariah Carey tickets. None of this seemed to put a dent in the Netanyahu family’s political fortunes. But it all made for good headlines.

When Netanyahu lost his first reelection bid in 1999, he blamed it partly on the media—in particular, Yediot Aharonot, then the country’s largest newspaper. He fell out with its publisher, Arnon Mozes, in part over an unflattering story about his wife, Netanyahu himself said after the story ran. The relationship remains frosty to this day: Sara once compared Mozes to Lord Voldemort, the villain of the Harry Potter novels, while the prime minister routinely insists that Mozes is the mastermind of a global conspiracy to unseat him.

Netanyahu got a measure of relief in 2007 from Israel Hayom, a free tabloid founded by Sheldon Adelson, the American casino magnate and GOP mega-donor. Today, it is Israel’s most widely read publication, and is committed, seemingly, to one ideology: defending Netanyahu. Many Israelis call it the “Bibiton,” a portmanteau of Netanyahu’s nickname and the Hebrew word for newspaper. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who was born in the former Soviet Union, has compared it favorably to Pravda.

Yet Netanyahu’s obsession with the media has only deepened since then. In recent months he has tried to eliminate Israel’s new public broadcaster, over fears that it will become a critical voice against the right, and delayed its planned launch in December at a cost to taxpayers of 140 million shekels. His office has also pressured the popular news site Walla to run more favorable coverage over the past two years, according to current and former journalists with knowledge of the matter. Digital media resides beyond the state’s control; Israel does not regulate websites. Walla, however, is owned by Bezeq, Israel’s largest phone company, which is currently seeking government approval for major corporate reforms. (Netanyahu refuses to appoint a communications minister, reserving the post for himself.)


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