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Benjamin Netanyahu might become the first sitting prime minister of Israel to be charged with a crime, says Shir Hever

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has been the longest continuously-ruling prime minister in the history of Israel. As it is often the case when you have served for so long, he and his administration is facing a series of corruption scandals that have been exposed by the Israeli media, creating a strong suspicion that Netanyahu has received bribes. Among these scandals there is the issue of German submarines, in which a German arms company paid millions to a mediator selected by Netanyahu to promote the deal. Billionaire Arnon Milchan has given Netanyahu and his wife gifts of expensive cigars and champagne. Another billionaire, James Packer, has paid for hotel stays and flights for Netanyahu’s family. On Monday, the 18th of January, Netanyahu refuted all of the accusations against him. Let’s have a look. BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (speaking Hebrew) SHARMINI PERIES: Further to this, a recording has surfaced of Netanyahu bargaining with the owner, publisher, and chief editor of a major Israeli newspaper in which the two were ready to exchange favors with each other. Could this signify the end of Netanyahu’s administration? Well, on to talk about this with us is Shir Hever, our Real News correspondent in Heidelberg, Germany. Shir, good to have you with us. SHIR HEVER: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: Shir, let’s start with just an explanation as to what this corruption scandal is all about and what legal activity is being conducted in terms of the investigations of what he’s accused of. SHIR HEVER: Netanyahu managed to accumulate quite a long list of corruption scandals, about eleven cases that have been at some point investigated by the police. At the moment, there are seven open cases against him in which the police are still investigating, and each one of them is actually about the issue of bribery. This is the main and repeating topic where the police argue, based on the evidence that they have, Netanyahu receives benefits and money or valuable items or he receives political favors from billionaires or millionaires and very influential people, and in exchange he is allowing them influence over policy. And I think that’s a recurring theme with him, which I think indicates also his kind of style of government. Unlike most Israeli prime ministers in history, Netanyahu has never been too keen on any particular policy. It wasn’t that important for him to promote a certain reform or a certain project, a long-term strategic view. But the projects where he was really fighting tooth and nail to push through the Israeli Parliament, to push through other Israeli institutions were always those where there was some interest behind it, some millionaire or billionaire who wanted that thing promoted and was willing to reward Netanyahu directly. SHARMINI PERIES: And what is the current status of these accusations? Are they being investigated? Are charges being pressed against him? SHIR HEVER: The police announced on Monday that they have enough evidence to recommend pressing charges against Netanyahu. The person who will decide whether to press charges or not is the State Attorney, to use a U.S. term, but that’s not exactly an accurate translation – his name is Mandelblit – and he will decide whether to press charges. He has been delaying that decision for a very long time. His excuse for delaying the decision is that he’s waiting for the police to investigate everything they can, because if he recommends, or if he decides to press charges, it will be very difficult for him to then add more charges and more evidence at that stage. So he’s waiting, and everyone in Israel is waiting to see what’s going to happen. In Israel’s history, there has never been a prime minister that had charges pressed against him while he was in government. In fact, there was never a State Attorney who dared make that, opening a case against a reigning prime minister, always giving the prime minister the chance to resign first because if charges are opened against the prime minister, the prime minister is expected to resign, and if he does not resign, then the whole system collapses. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. How serious are these charges, Shir? A bottle of champagne or a favor here and there doesn’t seem like a big deal. You know, cigars are sent to prime ministers all the time. How serious is this matter and how do we weigh these allegations and the serious or the scale of the issue we are dealing with? SHIR HEVER: What I think the mistake would be to try to weigh these allegations in comparison with the U.S. The kind of action, the kind of gifts, that are even common and completely unremarkable in the context of the United States political system are just not done in the context of the Israeli political system. It’s a much smaller country, much smaller amounts of money. These cigars and this champagne is maybe not worth tens of millions, but it is worth quite a lot of money by Israeli standards, and the thing is that there is a very strong memory in Israel that there was a Prime Minister, Rabin, who resigned because his wife had an offshore account, a small offshore account, with about $500 in it, against regulations. And that was reason enough for him to resign. This is because unlike in the United States, where there is a very delicate system of balancing powers in different institutions which are able to start a process of impeachment and so on, in the Israeli system, that just doesn’t exist, so the only thing that keeps the political system working is a certain standard of understanding that no prime minister is allowed to break the law. I think many prime ministers in Israel’s history have broken the law. Mostly this was only discovered after their term was over. But in the case of Netanyahu who’s so long in power and has so many shady deals with so many billionaires, this is reaching very high levels of corruption. And so, the accusations are indeed very critical. And I think it’s also interesting to mention that this champagne and cigar story takes front page while the other corruption cases are talking about much larger sums of money. The submarine deal is a deal for billions of dollars. Admittedly the bribe part of that deal is in the tens of millions, but still tens of millions is more than all the cigars and champagne you can possibly buy. And also, the case of the newspapers, we’re talking about a great deal of money because Sheldon Adelson –- we’ve spoken about him on the show before -– has given Netanyahu a present worth about $150 million in the form of a free newspaper that lauds him and supports him– ————————- END PART2 SHARMINI PERIES: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m speaking with our correspondent in Heidelberg, Germany, about the various corruption scandals that Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, is tangled up in. Thanks for joining me again, Shir. SHIR HEVER: Thanks for having me. SHARMINI PERIES: And is there really a chance here that Netanyahu will be forced to resign, or he will be impeached, even? SHIR HEVER: Netanyahu continuously repeats that he is going to stay as prime minister for many more years. And he is intimidating his own party members and calling on them to stand up for him. And they seldom have even started lashing out against those billionaires, trying to intimidate them so they don’t cooperate with the police, and don’t give information in the interrogations. That is not working. The billionaires are speaking to the police. The police are gathering the information, and the State Attorney, Mandelblit, is in an impossible position. He’s a good friend of Netanyahu. He has pushed aside many accusations against Netanyahu over the years. But now against this amount of evidence, I don’t think he can really push that aside for much longer. And the best indicator of what’s going on is to look at Netanyahu’s own party. We see the ministers, we see the senior members of the party already starting to be a little bit uneasy in their seats, getting ready for a reshuffle. They know that if Netanyahu has to resign, there’s going to be a very bitter struggle over who will be the next prime minister, and who will get all the ministries and so on. And the fact that they’re already starting to sharpen their knives, tells us that they are ready to act. SHARMINI PERIES: And even if charges are pressed against him, is there any chance that he would resign? I mean, he’s such a sturdy and adamant prime minister. SHIR HEVER: Well, if you remember during the debate between Clinton and Trump, Trump was asked whether he would respect the result of the election if he doesn’t win, and he refused to make that commitment, and that caused a certain level of panic. Now we see something a bit similar in Israel. Because if charges are pressed, and Netanyahu refuses to resign, there is no law, there is no legal mechanism that forces him to resign. He has immunity as long as he’s prime minister. So, charges can be pressed, but they will be frozen and he cannot be taken to court, or to jail, while he reigns as prime minister. But, in that case, because there is such an accepted norm that prime ministers cannot reign while there are charges pressed against them –- by the way, it was Netanyahu himself who made that claim against the previous prime minister, said the prime minister cannot function when there is a legal case against him — and this should be noted, this is especially relevant for Israel. Not so much with the United States. Bill Clinton did continue to serve as president while defending himself in court. That has never been seen in Israel’s history. If Netanyahu insists on following Bill Clinton’s precedent, and tries not to resign, then his coalition might still collapse. And in that case, he will be immediately kicked out. So, it’s very likely that, in order to avoid this humiliation, he will resign, if charges are pressed against him. But in the unlikely case that he doesn’t, and that he manages to stay in power, Israel basically becomes a dictatorship. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And, Shir, Netanyahu has very strong ties to the United States. And that is seen in his favor. And if he were to resign, or forced to resign, this connection that Netanyahu has, particularly with Republicans, does that hurt Israel? And would that prevent, sort of, the charges being laid, and investigations being carried out, and he being forced into a corner here? SHIR HEVER: So, I was actually expecting Netanyahu to use that as part of his defense, to say that he is such an important asset to Israel’s foreign relations because of his good contacts with the Republicans of Donald Trump. Because of Sheldon Adelson — the biggest donor to Trump — he was a personal friend of Netanyahu that Israel cannot afford to lose him. I think Netanyahu was right in not using that line of argument. Because I think most of the Israelis understand there is a very close relation between the Republican Party and between American billionaires, and Israel and Netanyahu. Is it actually to say, it’s not a personal friendship with Netanyahu? It’s in the interests of the Republican politicians to have good ties with Israel, and it really doesn’t matter who the prime minister of Israel will be. Israelis understand that, and they understand that Netanyahu has not been very successful, actually, in convincing public opinion around the world to support Israel. He has made very serious blunders in his foreign policy. And I think what we also see, very interesting, is that Netanyahu was actually willing to throw his good friend Adelson under the bus. In those conversations that he had with a publisher and chief editor of Yedioth Ahronoth, an important newspaper in Israel, he said to that editor, “I can get rid of Shedel Adelson’s newspaper for you” — Israel Hayom, Israel Today — “I can get rid of it for you so that your newspaper will sell better.” And Adelson has already responded to those publications, and the number of copies that are freely distributed of his newspaper in Israel has declined by a third. So, that seems to show that he’s already taken offence. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And then finally, how is all this transpiring in the Israeli media and among the general public? SHIR HEVER: I read this morning with alarm and surprise, that Transparency International, the global organization to measure corruption, has actually reported that Israel is now two places better on the corruption scale. Meaning that corruption is on the decline in Israel. But then I realized that the way that Transparency International are conducting their research, is by public perception. They ask people, “How corrupt do you feel your government to be?” Not by actually using economic data. Most Israelis are fully aware that Netanyahu is corrupt. Most of them don’t care so much. And Netanyahu continues to be a popular prime minister in Israel, because he offers a kind of deal to the Israeli public. To be very populist, to promote domestic policies which are very aggressive, pro-Jewish, pro-Zionist, and anti-Palestinian, and in exchange the public basically allows him to do whatever he wants, and to cut deals with billionaires that actually affect the standard of living of Israelis. And Netanyahu has also declared this week, that 2,500 new houses will be built in the illegal colonies around Jerusalem, in the Occupied West Bank. And the UN has already condemned that decision, but he’s doing that precisely because of those accusations of corruption, because he needs to make a populist statement now. To say, “The people are still behind me, the public is behind me.” It doesn’t matter if it is destroying Israel’s foreign relations, as long as he gets to keep his seat. SHARMINI PERIES: All right. It’s starting to sound very familiar, all of this. There are a lot of lessons to be learned in terms of the Trump presidency in the United States, which has some of the similar strokes. I thank you so much for joining us, Shir, and looking forward to having you back very soon. SHIR HEVER: Thank you very much, Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. ————————- END

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Dr. Shir Hever grew up in Israel and now lives in Germany. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine stories for 16 years, and for the Real News specifically since 2016. He’s the author of two books and many articles, and is a committed member of several Palestine solidarity groups.