Column for JN issue May 24 2019
While (nearly) everyone bathes in the post-Eurovision euphoria of a fantastic TV extravaganza from Tel Aviv, something very troubling is oozing out of the political establishment in Jerusalem.
The prime minister, it may have escaped attention, is facing three serious charges of alleged fraud and corruption.
Among the jaw-dropping details in the indictment assembled by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit are the handing over, to Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara, of boxes of cigars and cases of champagne, together with jewellery, by Netanyahu’s billionaire friend, Arnon Milchan.
This was not just a few cigars or the occasional bottle of fizz. This was, according to the Attorney-General, something of a regular supply line, amounting to thousands of shekels in equivalent value. Allegedly, the couple received gifts amounting to $195,000, with $130,00 worth of cigars, champagne and jewellery from Milchan, and $75,000 worth of cigars and champagne from another billionaire acquaintance, the Australian media tycoon James Packer.
More details emerged on Sunday of claims made by the Netanyahus on Packer, including expensive overcoats, shaving equipment sent with Packer’s driver so the prime minister could be properly groomed for the funeral of Shimon Peres, a second yacht commissioned so Yair Netanyahu could accompany his parents on a trip… the list goes on, damning in its tacky, petty, alleged greed.
Netanyahu denies all charges announced against him, much of which he has denounced as a “leftist plot”. This is all perfectly fair and one would expect anyone facing such serious charges to engage lawyers and fight the damning allegations in court.
But Netanyahu — unlike his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who resigned as prime minister in order to fight corruption charges and was found guilty — is refusing to take this path.
Instead he is attempting to push through an immunity law which he is now trying to market to Knesset members from his own party. The proposed law — which he denied, during the election campaign last month that he was considering — would protect him from prosecution while in office.
And his reasoning for this, he has told Likud MKs: “The citizens of Israel deserve a full-time prime minister. I’ll deal with my legal issues when I have completed my time [as prime minister]”.
But that, of course, could be years away. Although the Netanyahus have repeatedly insisted that there is a vendetta against the family, it is surely not acceptable to have a prime minister ring-fenced and placing himself above the law.
To their credit, although painfully slowly, appalled Likudniks — including the deeply honourable and former long-time Knesset member Benny Begin — have begun to challenge Netanyahu’s response. Mr Begin told Israel Radio: “The prime minister hiding behind the shield of immunity as a Knesset member, with or without legislative changes, is a corrupt act… the prime minister intends to misuse his leadership for personal gain, and he is dragging others down with him.”
Last week, former education minister Gideon Sa’ar, who has clashed with Netanyahu in the past, said that the proposed legislation “offers zero benefit and causes maximum damage”.
The response: a Facebook post calling Sa’ar a “traitor”, next to a photoshopped image of him wearing a keffiyeh. And we all know too well what road that leads to.
Meanwhile, other MKs, hopeful of preferment in Netanyahu’s next coalition, are keeping mum while they wait to see which way the wind blows.
If the prime minister has nothing to hide, he does not need an immunity law. Let him defend himself and his family in court. And let him not squander all the current international goodwill directed towards Israel.
It, and we, need all the friends we can get.