The end of the con­siglieres

Jerusalem Post - - OBSERVATIONS - By YAAKOV KATZ

It was as if Yitzhak Mol­cho knew the po­lice were com­ing for him. Just 10 days be­fore Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu’s long­time con­fi­dant was ar­rested on Sun­day, Mol­cho an­nounced that he was step­ping down from his post as the PM’s spe­cial di­plo­matic en­voy.

Ne­tanyahu didn’t hold back the com­pli­ments: “It is not yet time to re­veal what you have done,” he told Mol­cho, “but I am sure that when that time does come, the Is­raeli pub­lic will have a tremen­dous ap­pre­ci­a­tion for your con­tri­bu­tion.”

Ten days later, on Sun­day, Mol­cho was ar­rested at his home and taken to the Lahav 443 po­lice unit’s head­quar­ters in Lod for 15 hours of ques­tion­ing with his brother-in-law and law firm part­ner, David Shim­ron.

There is no un­der­es­ti­mat­ing Mol­cho’s im­por­tance to Ne­tanyahu. If Shim­ron was Ne­tanyahu’s per­sonal “in­te­rior min­is­ter” – the man re­spon­si­ble for deal­ing with all of his do­mes­tic le­gal trou­bles and po­lit­i­cal ne­go­ti­a­tions – Mol­cho was his “for­eign min­is­ter,” and far more than that. Dur­ing Ne­tanyahu’s four terms as prime min­is­ter, Mol­cho was there at all of the im­por­tant di­plo­matic junc­tures.

In the late 1990s, the quiet, Jerusalem-born lawyer was Ne­tanyahu’s point man in the ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Pales­tini­ans, a role he con­tin­ued in 2013-2014 when he and Tzipi Livni made up Is­rael’s ne­go­ti­a­tion team in what were known as the Kerry talks. He was also the main con­tact for se­na­tor Ge­orge Mitchell, ap­pointed in 2009 by US pres­i­dent Barack Obama to ad­vance peace; played a role in the 2011 Gi­lad Schalit prisoner swap; and since then has been the lead emis­sary for any­thing re­lated to Egypt, Jor­dan and the Gulf states.

In a coun­try that hasn’t had a for­eign min­is­ter for the last three years, Mol­cho has pretty much filled that role, to the ex­tent that for­eign am­bas­sadors, after pre­sent­ing their cre­den­tials to the pres­i­dent, have of­ten tried to get their next im­por­tant meet­ing with him.

He was the ul­ti­mate con­sigliere, the man who could be trusted as a voice of rea­son, who would never leak to the press and who would serve his boss faith­fully. In short, a mod­ern day Tom Ha­gen, the fic­tional con­fi­dant of The God­fa­ther.

If po­lice sus­pi­cions are right, Mol­cho crossed a line and got him­self mixed up in Case 3000, the po­lice probe into Is­rael’s de­ci­sion to pur­chase sub­marines and other ves­sels from ThyssenKrupp, a Ger­man ship­builder.

Prime min­is­ters have the right to ap­point con­fi­dants to serve in key and dis­creet po­si­tions. Al­most all of them used them. In his first term, in ad­di­tion to Mol­cho, Ne­tanyahu

sent Ronald Lauder to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­ity of peace talks with the late Hafez As­sad in Syria. Ariel Sharon used Dov Weiss­glas, a lawyer who be­came his chief of staff and di­plo­matic emis­sary.

The dif­fer­ence was that Weiss­glas left his law firm be­hind when he joined the gov­ern­ment. Mol­cho and Shim­ron didn’t. They con­tin­ued to work pri­vately and therein lies the prob­lem.

While Shim­ron claims that he never spoke about the navy ves­sel deal with Ne­tanyahu, it’s hard to es­cape the feel­ing that Miki Ganor – ThyssenKrupp’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Is­rael who has now turned state’s wit­ness – didn’t think about his lawyer’s close ties with the prime min­is­ter and the clout he had through­out the gov­ern­ment be­fore re­tain­ing his firm.

The same ap­plies to Mol­cho. While he might have built – as sources close to him have claimed – a “Chi­nese Wall” be­tween his busi­ness deal­ings and di­plo­matic work, po­ten­tial clients were also most def­i­nitely at­tracted by Mol­cho’s close ties with Ne­tanyahu when con­sid­er­ing which lawyer to hire.

This was the case for a num­ber of clients who, when con­sid­er­ing le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, fig­ured that Shim­ron-Mol­cho would be the best due to their ob­vi­ous con­nec­tions through­out the gov­ern­ment.

The pair’s power stemmed not just from Mol­cho’s di­plo­matic mis­sions, but pos­si­bly even more so from the work Shim­ron has done for Ne­tanyahu over the years as the Likud’s main ne­go­tia­tor in coali­tion talks. After the last elec­tion in 2015, party lead­ers met with Shim­ron to ne­go­ti­ate the terms of their en­try into the gov­ern­ment. This sta­tus gave him ac­cess to ev­ery min­istry and min­is­ter.

It re­mains to be seen if Shim­ron and Mol­cho are cor­rupt, and it is def­i­nitely pos­si­ble that the po­lice will ul­ti­mately clear them both of the sus­pi­cions against them. Based on ear­lier an­nounce­ments by At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Avichai Man­del­blit, we al­ready know that Ne­tanyahu is not a sus­pect in the navy ves­sel case.

But even if both lawyers are cleared of the sus­pi­cions against them, this doesn’t mean that they, and Ne­tanyahu, are not guilty of al­low­ing a cor­rupt cul­ture to per­me­ate Is­rael’s gov­ern­men­tal in­sti­tu­tions. Ne­tanyahu never should have al­lowed Mol­cho and Shim­ron to work as his close ad­vis­ers as long as they were still work­ing in the pri­vate sec­tor. It was his re­spon­si­bil­ity to pre­vent con­flicts of in­ter­est like this from hap­pen­ing.

Even if no crime were com­mit­ted, he is still re­spon­si­ble for al­low­ing the two lawyers to take ad­van­tage of the two worlds they were able to slide be­tween – gov­ern­ment and the pri­vate sec­tor. They could pub­li­cize their firm as spe­cial­iz­ing in the com­mu­ni­ca­tions in­dus­try, and at the same time work for the prime min­is­ter who also once served as the com­mu­ni­ca­tions min­is­ter. It might not be il­le­gal, but it sure as heck didn’t pass the smell test.

Th­ese are things that sim­ply should not be done. There needs to be a clear di­vide be­tween the gov­ern­ment and the pri­vate sec­tor, and the peo­ple who work in both. Po­si­tions like those held by Shim­ron and Mol­cho – how­ever no­ble their ser­vice to the state might have been – should not be al­lowed any longer in Is­rael’s gov­ern­ment.

One hopes that will be the most im­me­di­ate take­away from the navy ves­sel af­fair. How­ever, the deeper is­sue at play here has to do with the way Ne­tanyahu sees his role as prime min­is­ter.

In pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions, he gives the im­pres­sion of a man un­der siege. Ev­ery­where he looks, he sees crises. His wife, Sara, is fac­ing an in­dict­ment in the Prime Min­is­ter’s Res­i­dence af­fair and his old­est son, Yair, can’t seem to con­trol his mouth or his Face­book page post­ings. The two in­ves­ti­ga­tions against Ne­tanyahu – the graft probe and the Ye­diot Aharonot af­fair – are still on­go­ing, and don’t look they will be go­ing away any­time soon.

While he claimed last week that the leg­is­la­tion be­ing pro­posed to “save” him from the in­ves­ti­ga­tions is be­ing pur­sued against his wishes, the Knes­set ap­proved in a pre­lim­i­nary vote on Wed­nes­day a bill that would ban the po­lice from giv­ing pros­e­cu­tors a rec­om­men­da­tion at the con­clu­sion of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The Knes­set doesn’t care sud­denly about in­ves­ti­ga­tions against the av­er­age Is­raeli. This bill is be­ing pushed for the sole pur­pose of help­ing Ne­tanyahu, who fears that a po­lice rec­om­men­da­tion to in­dict him would chip away at his im­age as a man-of-the-peo­ple among Likud vot­ers. Even without an in­dict­ment, such a rec­om­men­da­tion would be ex­tremely dam­ag­ing ahead of the next elec­tion.

It has al­ways seemed that Ne­tanyahu’s re­liance on non­govern­ment of­fi­cials like Mol­cho and Shim­ron, as well as his re­fusal to ap­point a for­eign min­is­ter for the last three years – it­self as­tound­ing con­sid­er­ing Is­rael’s di­plo­matic chal­lenges – is part of a larger dis­dain he has for gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions.

A num­ber of peo­ple who have worked for Ne­tanyahu in re­cent years de­scribe him as some­one who doesn’t re­ally have “ad­vis­ers.” In­stead, he views his staff – some of whom are ex­tremely tal­ented and of high cal­iber – as “as­sis­tants,” peo­ple who do his bid­ding, since in his mind no one is truly ca­pa­ble of giv­ing him ad­vice.

Then there is his al­liance with David Bi­tan and Dudi Am­salem, two Likud MKs known for their vul­gar­ity and crude­ness, to ad­vance his anti-po­lice leg­is­la­tion, as well as his de­ci­sion to take Cul­ture Min­is­ter Miri Regev – pos­si­bly the most ex­treme mem­ber of his cabi­net – with him to Lon­don last week.

Why would the man known for be­ing one of Is­rael’s finest diplo­mats sur­round him­self with politi­cians who are his po­lar op­po­site and be­neath him in ex­pe­ri­ence, grav­i­tas and re­spect? Your guess is as good as mine.

There is no ques­tion that Ne­tanyahu is ex­pe­ri­enced, gifted, and one of the most im­por­tant lead­ers to­day on the world stage. But a lot of what is hap­pen­ing now is the re­sult of some­one for whom the lines have started to blur be­tween what is right, what is wrong, and what sim­ply stinks.

Get­ting rid of his con­siglieres will show the pub­lic that Ne­tanyahu still knows the dif­fer­ence.

(Flash90, Marc Is­rael Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

YITZHAK MOL­CHO, Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu and David Shim­ron.

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