Analysis from Israel

Note: Two days after this article was published, Netanyahu was formally named as a suspect in another case, known as the Bezeq case. The police recommendations discussed in this article do not relate to that case.

Recent polls show that if Israel held elections today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party would likely win again, despite police recommendations that he be indicted on six counts of taking bribes. In fact, he’s now polling better than he was before the recommendation was released: Fewer people think he should resign, and more say they would vote Likud. That improvement reveals something important: To many Israelis, the crimes that police are currently accusing Netanyahu of committing just don’t sound all that serious.

Israelis have long known that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are hedonists who prefer other people to pay for their pleasures. Consequently, the revelation that businessmen were plying them with enormous quantities of expensive cigars and champagne wasn’t actually news. And while most Israelis find this conduct repulsive, it’s a price many are willing to pay as long as they feel that Netanyahu is generally doing well by the country, which he is: Even his enemies admit that he has presided over a booming economy, low levels of terrorism and burgeoning relationships with countries around the world.

The real question—the one the polling data hinged on—was what Netanyahu was doing in return for those gifts, and to what degree it harmed the country. So far, the answer seems to be “not much.” Indeed, the quid pro quos detailed in the police report were actually less serious than prior leaks had led the public to expect. While space precludes examining all six allegations in depth, three should suffice to give the flavor.

Let’s start with my personal favorite among the benefits Netanyahu allegedly gave Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan: forming a task force to study Milchan’s proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian free trade zone where one of India’s leading businessmen, Ratan Tata, would produce Tata cars. True, Milchan might have benefited financially had the project actually gone forward (which it didn’t) since he and Tata proposed running the zone in partnership. But anyone familiar with Netanyahu’s foreign policy knows that he has long promoted “economic peace” with the Palestinians as a substitute for the diplomatic peace that currently remains impossible, and that he accords high priority to improving relations with India.

Consequently, it’s fatuous to think he would have to be bribed to consider a proposal that could improve the Palestinian economy while bringing one of India’s largest companies to Israel; it’s the kind of idea that would naturally appeal to him. And even if, as police claim, defense officials disliked the idea, it’s not a crime for prime ministers to have policy disagreements with defense officials. So this charge simply doesn’t hold water.

Another alleged quid pro quo was helping Milchan secure a long-term American visa. But this is the kind of help governments often give leading businessmen, especially if the businessman in question appears to be having visa problems mainly because of his past assistance to the country’s security services. Nor is this something that harms ordinary Israelis in any way. Thus, it’s not something they really care about.

Then there’s the claim that Netanyahu took steps that benefited Milchan in his role as part-owner of Channel 10 television. That’s unarguably true, and it also unarguably cost the Israeli taxpayer money. Channel 10 has serially defaulted on its financial obligations to the government as stipulated in its broadcasting license, yet the government has repeatedly changed the rules to let it stay on the air. But Netanyahu allegedly went even further by helping Milchan find a buyer for his shares when he sought to reduce his stake in this financial sinkhole, and that is the focus of the police recommendation.

Yet it’s far from obvious that Netanyahu’s conduct in this case was motivated by bribery. First, governments have been bending the rules in order to save Channel 10 since before Netanyahu took office and before Milchan acquired his stake. This looks a lot like just one more rule-bending rescue effort: The man who bought Milchan’s shares didn’t just put money in Milchan’s pocket; he also bought shares from other people to acquire a controlling stake in the cash-strapped channel, then injected desperately needed capital into it, thereby saving it from financial collapse.

Second, Netanyahu had previously threatened more than once to rescind Channel 10’s license due to its serial defaults and sell the frequency to new owners who might honor their financial commitments. Each time, however, he backed down after the entire media—joined by the entire opposition—accused him of seeking to destroy freedom of the press by shutting down a media outlet openly critical of him. A similar threat and a similar media outcry preceded the Milchan buyout. So did Netanyahu really save Channel 10 to help his good friend Milchan, or was he simply cowed into doing so, for the umpteenth time, by a media campaign falsely claiming that letting a bankrupt channel fold would be “anti-democratic”?

It’s important to note that two cases still under investigation seem much more serious than the six on which police have so far recommended charges. One involves corruption in the purchase of naval vessels. The other involves multimillion-dollar benefits to Israel’s landline telephone monopoly, Bezeq, including killing a reform that would have significantly reduced landline rates for all Israelis, in exchange for favorable coverage of Netanyahu by an Internet news site Bezeq owns. As of this writing, Netanyahu isn’t officially a suspect in either case, but at least in the Bezeq case, he seems almost certain to become one. And should police recommend charging him in either of these, public opinion would likely turn far more sharply against him.

Still, the recommendations police have released so far don’t tell the public anything it didn’t already know: Netanyahu likes living the high life at other people’s expense. Unless police produce evidence that such luxuries were actually coming at the country’s expense, many Netanyahu supporters will continue believing his outstanding performance as prime minister outweighs his shoddy personal conduct.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on February 27, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org

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In Europe, Israel needs a bottom-up approach to diplomacy

For years, I considered Europe a lost cause from Israel’s perspective and decried the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Euro-centric focus, arguing that it should instead devote more effort to places like Africa, Asia and South America, which seemed to offer better prospects for flipping countries into the pro-Israel camp. But the past few years have proven that Europe isn’t hopeless—if Israel changes its traditional modus operandi.

This has been evident, first of all, in the alliances that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed with several countries in eastern and southern Europe, resulting in these countries repeatedly blocking anti-Israel decisions at the European Union level. Previously, Israeli diplomacy had focused overwhelmingly on Western Europe. Netanyahu’s key insight was that conservative, nationalist governments seeking to preserve their own nation-states would have more instinctive sympathy for a Jewish state than the liberal universalists who dominate in Western Europe, and whose goal is to replace nation-states with an ever-closer European union.

But as several recent events show, even Western Europe isn’t a lost cause. The difference is that there, conventional high-level diplomacy won’t work. Rather, the key to change is the fact that most Europeans, like most people everywhere, don’t really care that much about Israel, the Palestinians or their unending conflict. Consequently, small groups of committed activists can exert a disproportionate influence on policy.

For years, this has worked against Israel because the anti-Israel crowd woke up to this fact very early and took full advantage of it. Take, for instance, the 2015 decision to boycott Israel adopted by Britain’s national student union. The union represents some 7 million students, but its executive council passed the decision by a vote of 19-12. Or consider the academic boycott of Israel approved in 2006 by Britain’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (which no longer exists, having merged into a larger union). The association had some 67,000 members at the time, but only 198 bothered to vote, of whom 109 voted in favor.

Yet it turns out pro-Israel activists can use the same tactics, as in last week’s approval of a resolution saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism by the lower house of France’s parliament. The resolution passed 154-72, meaning that fewer than 40 percent of the National Assembly’s 577 deputies bothered to vote, even though 550 deputies were present earlier in the day to vote on the social security budget. In other words, most deputies simply didn’t care about this issue, which meant that passing the resolution required convincing only about a quarter of the house.

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