Is this the end of the 13-year Netanyahu era? What is Trump learning from Netanyahu’s unprecedented response to the charges against him?
GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.
On Thursday, Israel’s attorney general Avichai Mandelblit announced that he is charging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on three counts of corruption. Here’s how he opened his announcement.
AVICHAI MANDELBLIT: This is a rough and sad day. Today I told the representatives of the prime minister that I’ve decided to press charges against him on three accounts.
GREG WILPERT: That same evening, Netanyahu responded with a prepared speech.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: We are witnessing today a coup attempt against the prime minister, by false accusations, and by a corrupt and biased investigation process. It is intended to overthrow a right-wing prime minister. It is intended to overthrow me, who unlike many of my rivals in the left, and unlike the biased liberal media, want to see a free market here, not just in the economy, but also a free market in the market of opinions in the media.
A prime minister who believes in a strong and large Israel, and not in a weak state, shrunk, and with a bowed head. This dirty process raises questions about the public trust in police investigations, and the work of the state attorneys general. You know, it’s been checked that the public lost its faith in them. It loses its faith in them constantly, and rightly so. I will not let that in our state, in our democracy, there will be such dirty investigations; there will be such selective enforcement; there will be such a miscarriage of justice. I will not let the lie win. I will continue to lead the state according to the law, just as it is written.
GREG WILPERT: Netanyahu is under no obligation to resign, but this is the first time in the history of the state of Israel, in which a prime minister, who is under criminal indictment, remains in office. Meanwhile, the day before Attorney General Mandelblit announced the charges against Netanyahu, opposition leader Benny Gantz failed to form a government within the 28 day time limit that he had. At first, it was expected that Israel would now head towards a third parliamentary election in a single year. However, president Rivlin allowed the parliament, the Knesset, to choose a prime minister on its own, for which it has another 28 days.
Joining me now to discuss the Netanyahu indictment is Shir Hever. He’s a Real News correspondent based in Heidelberg, Germany, and is the author of the book, The Privatization of Israeli Security. Thanks for joining us today, Shir.
SHIR HEVER: Thanks for having me, Greg.
GREG WILPERT: So, tell us briefly what the charges are against Netanyahu, and what is expected to happen now, and how do you expect this indictment to affect the formation of a government in Israel?
SHIR HEVER: Yeah. So Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit chose three cases to focus on out of a very wide array of different charges, and decided to focus on charges of fraud, a breach of trust, and bribery. And this is specifically on three cases in which billionaires have given a Netanyahu gifts, either in the form of luxuries like hotel nights, and champagne, and cigars, and jewelry, or in the form of positive coverage in their newspapers.
And that’s actually the main issue here. In newspapers, in television channels, in web-based news agencies, that gave Netanyahu positive coverage. And in exchange, as prime minister and also as the minister of communication, he has given these billionaires a free hand to merge their businesses, or to take them apart and basically deregulated their sectors so they could make more profit. So these are the charges. Now what’s supposed to happen right now is that there should be a trial, and Netanyahu will have to face trial. And according to the Israeli legal system, the penalty for those breaches of trust, fraud, and bribery, is up to ten years of jail time. But Netanyahu is probably going to be able to get an extension on the time when the trial is going to begin and use that time to gather as much popularity as he can, in order to make his case stronger when the trial actually comes.
But at the moment, because there is no other prime minister who is able to lead the country, Netanyahu remains the acting and interim prime minister until the next elections. The only way to prevent that is–and this is what the president is now trying to do, President Rivlin–is to get 61 members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, to support somebody else to be the interim prime minister, or to form a coalition altogether that will rule for four years. But that really depends on members of Netanyahu’s own party, the Likud party, who will betray him basically, and choose somebody else from the party to take his place.
GREG WILPERT: Do think that’s likely, and if so, who would they choose?
SHIR HEVER: Well, it’s extremely unlikely, because Netanyahu has spent the last couple of years very effectively kicking out of the party, anyone who was my mildly critical of him. And he’s now has a party of Yes Men, and a few Yes Women, there are very few women in the Likud party. And so there’s only one challenger called Gideon Sa’ar, who is a young politician far more to the right than Netanyahu himself. And Gideon Sa’ar used to be the minister of the interior, the minister of public security.
He is racist and aggressive. But even he is very, very careful about openly challenging Netanyahu, and he keeps making hints that maybe one day he’ll also want to be prime minister, but first, that now is not the time, and as long as Netanyahu is in power, he’s not going to call for an open confrontation between them. So the Likud party actually has a kind of primaries process where they can select their own leaders. But at the moment nobody dares issue their candidacy against Netanyahu.
GREG WILPERT: So is there anything else though that Netanyahu can do at this point to avoid going to jail?
SHIR HEVER: Well, we’ve been covering, at The Real News, this story for years now. And I think the first coverage was about three years ago. And back then I said that this whole indictment is taking way too long. Because if we look at the crimes that Netanyahu is accused of, they started in 2007, so now we’re 2019. And it takes so long because Netanyahu is the master of deception and the master of diversion and his, he just always has another rabbit up is hat to make sure that the accusations against him will be diverted, and I think he still has a few more aces up his sleeve. Right now there is a very interesting situation that Netanyahu can ask the parliament for immunity so that he won’t be charged, but he has to ask the house committee of the Knesset. And there is no house committee of the Knesset because there is no coalition and because of all the political crises.
So some journalists have… In Hapeles newspaper for example, they’ve analyzed this and said, “well, if there’s no house committee, then Netanyahu cannot ask for immunity, and he’s going to go to trial right away.” But in fact, Netanyahu has a different interpretation and that’s, I think, what he’s going to do right now is to say, as long as there’s no house committee, we can’t even start the indictment process.
So first of all, there’s going to be an election, which is going to take a couple of months, and then there’s going to be a house committee established. By then Netanyahu will say, “Well, I won the election, so the people is supporting me; why should I stand trial?” And he’s also secretly pushing for legislation, what in Israel is called the French Law, which would mean that no indictment can be pressed against the prime minister who is incumbent. So, that will give him an extra four years in office before they can even press charges against him. And by that time he’s going to be about 75 years old. The trial itself could last for about seven years. When, the trial would be over, he’ll be 82, and then the court would say, “Well, we’re not going to send such an old man to jail.” So I think Netanyahu has everything planned out.
GREG WILPERT: Wow. Now we’re currently also following, of course, the impeachment proceedings against President Trump in the United States. Can you tell us how the processes, that is between Trump and Netanyahu, are these similar or completely different?
SHIR HEVER: If we look at the legal comparison, I think they’re extremely different. United States has, first of all, a lot of things that are very illegal in Israel, are actually legal in the United States when it comes to the ability of somebody who holds public office to do…to say certain things, to collaborate with private media agencies, and so on.
So I think, for example, the kind of relationship that Trump has with Fox News is something that in Israel it would be called outright illegal. But in the United States it’s not. So on the legal aspect, there are a lot of differences. But when it gets to the way that the reaction of Trump and Netanyahu to the accusation goes, here we see that the similarity is striking. I think they’re learning from each other. Mostly I think it’s actually Trump learning from Netanyahu. And we should look very carefully at the Netanyahu’s speech that he gave, the 17 minutes that he gave after Mandelblit’s press conference, and then go and look at how Trump is responding to the impeachment proceeding.
I think we’ll find a lot of similarities because… so attacking the police, attacking the media, attacking the legal system, the justice system, which is what Netanyahu is doing all the time. But I think there’s another difference, and that is the fact that, well, Trump doesn’t really have as much control over the legal system and all of the various actors who are operating there, whether it’s the attorney general, and the judges, and all the officials. And that’s a very large group of people.
When it comes to the Israeli legal system, Netanyahu knows everybody involved, and has a lot of influence over them on a personal level. Avichai Mandelblit himself, it looks like he’s his enemy. But this is a close friend of Netanyahu. And in 2015, Mandelblit was the secretary of the government, he was basically the chief of staff of Netanyahu for all intents and purposes. And then the Israeli government had to choose a new attorney general. And according to the Israeli law, there’s a special committee that comes up with eight names and then the government can choose among these names. But Netanyahu controlled that committee, so they only gave up one name, only Avichai Mandelblit, he was the only candidate.
So of course he got the job as attorney general, and then he set out to make sure that the indictment will be delayed as long as possible, to give Netanyahu more time to stay in office for as much as possible until somehow he’ll find a way out of it. And that’s something I think that Trump doesn’t really have. But I think Trump is absolutely going to try to use the same tactics that Netanyahu is using, and going after the accusers and say, “let’s investigate these people instead of me” exactly like Netanyahu is saying now.
GREG WILPERT: Wow. Now finally the Israeli media is covering this story mainly as a personal issue, saying that Netanyahu happens to be corrupt and that he’s trying to hold onto power and that’s it. Now, some journalists though, such as Rogel Alper from Haaretz, argue that the Netanyahu indictment is in fact a symptom of a far deeper problem in Israeli society. Would you agree with that assessment?
SHIR HEVER: Yeah. I think that the Israeli society has changed dramatically. And let’s remember, Netanyahu that has been prime minister for 13 years, but it wasn’t a continual time. He was three years prime minister between 96 and 99, and then I think the Israeli society was not ready for him. Because just like you said, it’s unprecedented that an Israeli prime minister stays in office when he’s charged with a crime, because all the prime ministers before Netanyahu, many of them were corrupt, but they were put under a lot of pressure to step down from their own party, and because of… those were the norms. And this kind of populous right-wing that Netanyahu is bringing into the system, is something that the… that was not accepted in the 90s, was not accepted in the 80s, but it is accepted now. And I think that’s exactly what happened in Israeli society.
The opposition is saying, “Well, Netanyahu is a liar. He is a fraud. He constantly lies.” And Netanyahu is saying basically, “So what? Maybe that’s not such a bad thing to lie all the time.” He doesn’t say that, of course, with these words. But the idea, and he keeps bringing this up, is how good he has been to Israeli foreign relationships, because of his ability to form alliances with far right leaders in other countries around the world, including antisemitic leaders, including militaristic and racist leaders, from Brazil, to India, from Hungary, to the United States. And then he’s saying, “Well, don’t you want somebody who can lie to the world leaders, to the United Nations, on your behalf? And wouldn’t you be willing to pay a price for this, by also having that prime minister steal from you and lie to you as well?” And I think a lot of Israelis say, “Well, yes, that’s the price we’re willing to pay. We want a leader who will be very shrewd.”
And I think that’s also reminds me a bit of how Trump responded to the accusations that he isn’t paying taxes, when he said, “Well, only fools pay taxes.” So I think that’s a very similar situation. Netanyahu wants to show that he is not accountable to the same kind of norms and regulations that all the other prime ministers were.
GREG WILPERT: Oh. Amazing developments, which we’ll continue to follow, but we’ll leave it there. I was speaking to Shir Hever, Real News correspondent based in Heidelberg, Germany. Thanks again, Shir, for having joined us today.
SHIR HEVER: Thank you, Greg.
GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.