Will Bibi's judges prioritise perks over principles?

Will Bibi's judges prioritise perks over principles?
Comment: Israeli PM Netanyahu's fate lies in the hands of avaricious coalition members, reluctant to cede their perks in the name of justice, writes Barak Barfi.
5 min read
16 Feb, 2018
Both cases have been turned over to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit [Getty]
On Tuesday, Israeli police investigators recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.  

In some democratic countries, similar charges often lead to resignation. Yet in Israel where politics trumps the courts, Prime Minister Netanyahu can lean on precedent to both buffet and bury him.  

In the court of public opinion, he will rely on aversion to the elites and machismo politics. The short-term effects of the Scarlet Letter he bears however will ultimately be decided by avaricious coalition members reluctant to cede their perks in the name of justice.
The charges against Netanyahu stem from two cases. In Case 1000, he is accused of accepting around $280,000 in gifts from two businessmen to advance their interests.

This included allegedly enacting a law to extend a tax holiday for Israelis returning from abroad, interceding with American officials to extend a benefactor's visa, and facilitating his procurement of a television concession.

Case 2000 involves a shady deal with the owner of a leading newspaper to provide favourable coverage in exchange for muzzling a competitor's outlet. Both have been turned over to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit who will decide Netanyahu's fate.
Israeli commentators, more pundits than analysts, predictably lambasted their longtime nemesis. Channel 10 Political Commentator Raviv Drucker, whose critiques of the prime minister have been highlighted by the international media, explained Mandelblit's, "maneuvering space is between bribery and breach of trust, I don't see any possibility that he can close this case and say, 'there was nothing'".

Nahum Barnea, Israel's leading commentator, urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to take a vacation until Mandelblit passes judgement.  
In Israel, politics not justice determines decisions
Netanyahu has consistently pushed back by accusing his accusers, including politicians, journalists and police investigators. It is a time-tested strategy for embattled Israeli politicians. 

When President Moshe Katsav was accused of rape in 2006, his legal strategy consisted of skewering the media and the elites. Such a strategy is popular among the "basket of deplorables" who constitute the prime minister's base.  

Netanyahu has also asked the Israeli public to look at what happened, not what the police claim to have occurred. There was no wrongdoing because the favours he was alleged to have promised were never implemented. 

Netanyahu would be the perfect lawyer for a defendant accused of armed robbery claiming the charges are bogus because nothing was taken.
It is however, Netanyahu's previous brushes with the law that are boosting his spirits. During his first term in office in 1999, he faced similar charges of fraud and breach of trust when the police concluded he received free house work from a contractor in exchange for securing him a lottery kiosk. 

Attorney General Elyakim Rubenstein however refused to indict him. But the decision was less legal than political. Rubenstein was known for his reluctance to prosecute politicians, hoping to curry favour with them instead.
Some media outlets believe his successor may do the same. On Wednesday, The New York Times profiled Mandelblit, noting that critics warn "he remains beholden to the prime minister who promoted him," first to cabinet secretary and then to his current position.  
Netanyahu would be the perfect lawyer for a defendant accused of armed robbery claiming the charges are bogus because nothing was taken
But other Israeli politicians have bucked patrons to pursue individual agendas. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman initially owed his political career to Netanyahu, who appointed him Director General of the Prime Minister's Office in 1996.  

But even before Netanyahu concluded the shortest term in office, Lieberman resigned.

Today, he is one of Netanyahu's fiercest critics, siphoning off votes from the Likud. Even the cabinet secretary position which Mandelblit held is not immune to this syndrome.

Read more: Israeli attorney general lauds police corruption probe into Netanyahu

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appointed Gideon Sa'ar to the position in 2001. But when Sharon left the Likud to form a new party in 2005, the apprentice did not follow. In Israel, where alliances are as fluid as the Jordan River, cunning politicians are mavericks who follow their own pursuits.
While Netanyahu hopes for a 1999 redux, his critics point to a different precedent, that of disgraced premier Ehud Olmert. 

In 2008, he resigned days after the police recommended indictment on charges similar to those of Netanyahu. Far from being a magnanimous gesture, his decision was grounded in simple politics. Olmert's junior coalition partner and opposition leader Ehud Barak warned months earlier that a police indictment recommendation would lead him to pull his party's support.  

In Israel, politics not justice determines decisions.
While Barak was a millionaire several times over following his reign as prime minister, Netanyahu's current coalition partners and ministers from his Likud party are not. Greed for their perks - cars, bodyguards, international travel and a $148,589 annual salary - guides their thinking.  

Historically, ministers have been reluctant to resign over trivial matters such as indictments or state security.
In Israel, where alliances are as fluid as the Jordan River, cunning politicians are mavericks who follow their own pursuits.
In 1995, opposition parliamentarian Alex Goldfarb voted for a peace agreement with the Palestinians in exchange for an appointment as deputy minister. The media ridiculed him for selling his vote for a Mitsubishi car.
Today, it is Kulanu Party Chairman and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon who holds the prime minister's fate in his hands.

The 10 seats he controls in the parliament could end Prime Minister Netanyahu's reign. But like Goldfarb, he prefers his ministerial privileges to his fiduciary responsibilities.

On his Facebook page, Kahlon explained how politics and the law are separated by a Chinese Wall. "The law states that only the Attorney General is entitled to make decisions about submitting or not submitting an indictment. Until then, I will continue to lead and navigate the economy."
Until Kahlon and his ilk break down that wall, Prime Minister Netanyahu will remain in his post railing at his enemies.

And as long as Israel's politicians shirk their duty, justice will be the loser in a country whose leaders consistently boast the claim that it is the Middle East's sole democracy.

Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation, where he specialises in Arab and Islamic Affairs.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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