Does It Really Matter If Netanyahu Ends Up Behind Bars?
"Background noise" was the way Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu characterised the decision of his former chief of staff, Ari Harow, to become a state witness. The following day, the prime minister's press officer declared - for the 100th time - that "Nothing will happen, because nothing happened." Despite his relentless effort to paint a business-as-usual atmosphere, this time it looks as if Netanyahu is actually going down.
At least two probes dealing with serious allegations of bribery, breach of trust and fraud seem likely to end with an indictment against Israel's premier. In "Case 1,000", police suspect Netanyahu accepted lavish gifts from wealthy businessmen, while, in certain instances, he even provided services in return.
"Harow is the game changer," as one prominent Israeli columnist explained. Before becoming chief of staff, he was responsible for maintaining Netanyahu's connections with several billionaires, and is likely to possess incriminating information about his former boss's relations with these affluent figures.
But even before Harow flipped, the police divulged that Netanyahu had intervened on behalf of Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan who, for years, had given Netanyahu and his family presents worth hundreds of thousands of shekels. According to the police, the prime minister had approached both former US Ambassador Dan Shapiro and Secretary of State John Kerry to help procure a ten-year visa to the US for Milchan. The police also noted that Milchan holds a 9.8 percent stake in Israel's Channel 10, which is subject to regulation by Israel's Ministry of Communications, headed until recently by Netanyahu.
The second probe, called "Case 2,000", focuses on recordings the police obtained after confiscating Harow's personal computer and phone. Capturing conversations between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and the popular Ynet News website, the recordings reveal that just before the 2015 Israeli elections, Mozes offered to help Netanyahu to stay in power "for as long as [he] want[s]". In a quid pro quo deal, the publisher requested that Netanyahu pass legislation limiting the ability of Yedioth Ahronoth's main competitor, the pro-Netanyahu Israel HaYom newspaper, to distribute papers free of charge.
According to the transcripts, the two went so far as to discuss which pro-Netanyahu columnists Yedioth Ahronoth would hire. Netanyahu then said he would discuss the legislation with the "redhead" - referring to Israel HaYom's publisher, the American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who is also a Republican kingmaker and known contributor to Donald Trump's presidential campaign. In fact, during a recent police interrogation, Adelson confirmed that Netanyahu had asked him to consider cancelling the paper's weekend edition.
These probes are perhaps the most incriminating, but, as the noose tightens, Netanyahu will have to deal with a number of other legal inquiries as well. The prime minister's personal attorney is one of the major suspects in "Case 3,000", which is looking at suspicious acquisitions on the part of the Israeli military involving alleged bribes and fraud. According to Ha'aretz, "Netanyahu's personal lawyer was due to earn tens of millions of shekels from an agreement, since suspended, to buy three submarines from Germany." The personal lawyer, however, is not the only link between Netanyahu and the corrupt transaction, since the deal seems to have been supported by the prime minister and approved behind the back of the previous defence minister, who had opposed the procurement of the submarines.
Lastly, the police have recommended pressing charges against Sarah Netanyahu, the prime minister's wife, for misusing state funds, including the movement of furniture from the prime minister's official residence to her private home and paying an electrician to rewire her private abode at the taxpayers' expense. Israeli newspapers suggest that she is likely to be indicted soon.
Netanyahu's 11-year rule thus appears to be fast approaching an inglorious end. The more interesting question now, however, is what the significance of these developments will be. Two points are worth making.
First, Netanyahu is not really an outlier. Many leaders and politicians across the globe, particularly those who, like Netanyahu, have managed to stay in power for many years, have also become corrupt by abusing the privileges and responsibilities bestowed upon them by their office. Yet what is unusual about the Israeli case is that some of the corrupt protagonists actually end up in jail.