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  February 23, 2018

What Netanyahu's Growing Corruption Scandal Means for the Region

As a top aide agrees to cooperate against Benjamin Netanyahu, Phyllis Bennis warns that the Israeli Prime Minister's domestic corruption case could lead him to ramp up threats to Iran and other rivals
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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. She is the author of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer, Before and After: US Foreign Policy and the September 11 Crisis, Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer and Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: A Primer. Her most recent book is Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer.


AARON MATE: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté. When Israeli police recommended bribery and fraud charges against him earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, dismissed their allegations.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Translator): After I read the recommendation report, I can say it is biased, extreme, full of holes like Swiss cheese.

AARON MATÉ: Just days later Netanyahu's corruption scandal is growing. One of Netanyahu's closest and longest serving aides has agreed to become a government witness in a whole new case. The aide, Shlomo Filber, is reportedly prepared to testify about allegations Netanyahu provided favors to Israeli telecommunications company, Bezeq, in exchange for positive coverage on its news website. This follows allegations in separate cases that accuse Netanyahu of plotting with a media tycoon to ensure he would receive positive coverage in a different outlet, as well as taking bribes in exchange for helping wealthy donors. Now, all of this threatens Netanyahu's political future, but it continues to overshadow the illegal occupation he oversees.

Just today, video was released online of Israeli police beating a Palestinian man in the West Bank city of Jericho. The victim, Yasin al-Saradih, has since died apparently from wounds he sustained during the attack.

Phyllis Bennis is director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Welcome, Phyllis. Let's start with Netanyahu, the news breaking this week of an aide flipping, testifying against him in a whole separate case from what we've heard about before. Your thoughts on the scandal, the growing scandal that Netanyahu is facing.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, the details of the scandal, you mentioned most of them. There's four separate cases underway that have to do with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, as you said. The police have recommended that he be indicted. It's now in the hands of the Attorney General and it's really very similar to the situation here in the United States. There are claims, actually that Netanyahu sent private investigators to investigate the police that were investigating him and is attacking the police forces, very much as we're seeing here with Trump attacking the FBI who is investigating him. So, there's a lot of similarities. I do think that the overview is more important in terms of how this really threatens the Palestinians, it threatens the region, it threatens Iran.

There's a great deal of threat involved in this that has nothing to do with the details of these cases, but like in the United States when Netanyahu is threatened with the possibility of being held accountable for potential crimes, he is responding by making greater military threats, even then he has in the past, including just in the last couple of days at the big annual Security Summit in Munich, in Germany, where he said that, he threatened Iran that he would go to war directly with Iran, not against its proxies, if Iran continued its activities. So, it's really escalating. It's an escalation of the rhetoric. It's an escalation of the threat level and it's in situations like this that the possibility rises of an Israeli attack on Gaza, of an escalation in Syria.

We've already seen an escalation in the last week or so when there was an apparently unarmed drone found in Israeli airspace. It was shot down. No one was hurt, but the Israelis responded with a number of F16 bomber strikes into Syria, attacking both Syria and Iranian targets in Syria. That was a very serious escalation of the Israeli role in the Syrian war. And it's now making more even direct threats against Iran. So, the moment is a very dicey one, whether or not these cases prove out, whether the Attorney General has enough political strength to go ahead with them. We're not sure of that. The Attorney General has already said it would take several months of investigation to make the decision, but we're in a very dicey moment as a result of the threatened indictment of Netanyahu.

AARON MATÉ: Let me ask you about one aspect of Israel's role in Syria that hasn't gotten very much attention, but there was just a new news report about it this week with the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, reporting that Israel is stepping up its support to militant groups inside Syria. What's going on there?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: There's not a lot of information yet about what is different, but it's not a new phenomenon that Israel is providing, at the very least, medical support treating wounded militants who are fighting against the Assad regime. It doesn't seem to matter to the Israelis very much whether they are part of, for example, Al-Nusra, the Al-Nusra front in Syria, which is linked to Al-Qaeda, or other anti-Assad militants. They seem to be willing to take them over the border, treat their injuries and send them back to fight some more. I think this has been an ongoing reality. The Israeli role has been relatively low key. It has focused primarily on, its bombing rates have focused on going after arms conveys that Israel alleges are going to Hezbollah inside Syria.

They have not had a situation where Hezbollah or others have responded directly against them. There have been some clashes, but they've been quite small scale. The question now is whether those clashes, whether Israeli support for some or all of these anti-Assad forces that are fighting in Syria escalates even further as a way of Israel escalating against Iran, or again, whether there's a danger of a direct attack of some sort on Iranian positions, as we saw last week. The Iranians did not respond militarily to that attack on their positions in Syria. They were clearly not interested in further escalation, but how long that will remain the case, we don't know.

If the Israelis continue to escalate their direct assault on Iranian positions inside Syria, and of course, Iran is there at the request of the Syrian government, which despite its lack of legitimacy in many quarters because of its massive human rights violations, it remains the recognized government in Syria. The other foreign forces that are fighting in Syria, the US, Turkey, and others, as well as Israeli, obviously, do not have an invitation or permission from the Syrian government, so there's a big legal gap between which forces are there legally, however one judges the legitimacy, and which ones are there illegally, as well as illegitimate.

AARON MATÉ: Well speaking of which, just today the Trump administration asserted that it already has the legal authority not just to keep troops in Iraq, which it's said before, but also to keep troops in Syria indefinitely, which was a recent announcement that it made saying that it's, even though ISIS has been defeated, it will stay in Syria. On this front, let's go to a clip. Actually, it's something you referenced before, which is Netanyahu speaking a few days ago at the Security Conference in Munich.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Through its proxies, Shiite militias in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, Iran is devouring huge swaths of the Middle East. Now, there has been one positive consequence of Iran's growing aggression in the region. It's brought Arabs and Israelis closer together as never before. In a paradoxical way, this may pave the way for broader peace and ultimately also for Palestinian-Israeli peace.

AARON MATÉ: That's Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the Munich Security Conference. Phyllis, so he's talking about how actually a united front between Israel and Gulf states against Iran, could lead to a broader regional peace, and even directly Israeli-Palestinian peace. What is he saying there?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, what he's saying, he's referring to the fact that there is in fact a far more public level of alliance right now between Israel and the Gulf-Arab states. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar may or may not be involved. They've been a little cagey about it. This is a very grave situation. There really is a buildup against Iran designed to isolate Iran. This very much has the Trump administration's involvement all over it and what we're seeing is a very significant danger when Netanyahu starts talking about "the Arabs" as sort of uniting with "the Israelis" as if this is all somehow a popular movement among people. This is a direct lie.

This is a governmental and military-to-military alliance that has been underway for many, many years, but it remained quiet and in many cases secret for the Saudis in particular, who are leading this alliance with Israel, particularly under the leadership of the new Crown Prince, the young Mohammed bin Salman, who has been appointed less than a year and has been orchestrating all of Saudi military and strategic policy, including its leadership of the horrific war in Yemen that has led to the deaths of thousands of Yemenis, the near starvation of several million people, hundreds of thousands that are now facing cholera without access to the drugs they need to treat it. It's a disastrous humanitarian crisis in Yemen and very much because of the Saudi attack, the Saudi bombing campaigns that continue with direct U.S. involvement.

US planes are flying alongside the UAE and Saudi bombers to provide in air refueling of those bombers so they can bomb Yemeni targets for efficiently. It's a humanitarian disaster, but one of the things that's different now is that the Israelis and the Saudi regimes are prepared to acknowledge to the world that they are collaborating, that they are wishing each other nothing but good wishes, that they are eager for normalization. Something that has been underway for a long time, but never acknowledged. The Saudis have decided that it's worth taking whatever public opposition there may be, and there may or may not be public opposition that we ever hear about inside Saudi Arabia.

The same for the Israelis. Netanyahu is betting that the anti-Iran fever that he has helped to whip up in recent years will be sufficient to cover any unease among some Israelis, particularly among his own right wing supporters about rebuilding a public alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia. It's a very dangerous moment because if they start to feel too cocky, and that they, to feel that the United States will back an Israeli-Saudi initiative against Iran regardless of how reckless it might be, it could become almost as dangerous as the threat of war in North Korea. This is a very, very dangerous moment.

AARON MATÉ: Phyllis finally, I want to go back to Netanyahu's comments at the Munich Security Conference. It happened just after there was a plane crash in Iran, which killed dozens of people, and Netanyahu said something curious. This is what he said.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I've explained we have no quarrel with the people of Iran, only with the regime that torments them. I take this opportunity to send our condolences to the families of the 66 Iranian civilians shot down, or that lost their lives in the plane accident today. We have no quarrel with the people of Iran.

AARON MATÉ: That's Netanyahu. If you listen closely, you heard his say the plane that was "shot down." Then he corrected himself and said that it crashed and by all appearances it was not actually shot down, it was just an accident, but that to me, Phyllis, I don't know. It just, it was an interesting slip and it ... We've learned recently that Israel had discussed plans in the past going back to the 70s of shooting down passenger planes if they carried officials from the PLO onboard, especially Arafat, it's former enemy. I'm just wondering, you're talking about this moment being dangerous.

I mean, what, how far do you think Israel might be prepared to go to achieve its goals in the region, whether it's in the occupied territories with the horrible blockade ongoing in Gaza, or trying to confront Iran both in Syria, which we talked about, and also in Lebanon where Iran has a pretty strong ally in Hezbollah? What are your concerns for this current moment going forward in terms of just how dangerous Israel with its alliance with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: The danger is in Washington. The danger is that the absolute support of the Trump administration, the clarity with which the Trump administration, the Ambassador that he chose to serve in Israel, a long time settlement backer, the role of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has built this kind of bromance with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the clarity with which the U.S. is making clear that it will back Israel regardless of what Israel does, is what makes it so dangerous. I think there's absolutely zero evidence that Israel shot down a plane in Iran.

I do not think it was an accident that Netanyahu made that slip and said that it was shot down. I think it was a signal to the Iranians, "This is what we could do if we chose." It was a threat. It was a signal. I don't think it has any basis of reality, but it gave him an astonishingly insulting [inaudible 00:14:39], given that 66 people did lose their lives and their families are still mourning, to say such a thing. I think this was less about blaming what Israel did and making clear what it might do. I think there are very few limits. We should be very, very weary of what this set of developments may lead to.

AARON MATÉ: We'll leave it there. Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Thank you.


AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.


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