Le­gal net tight­ens on Ne­tanyahu

Amid ac­cu­sa­tions, talk turns to an ag­ile po­lit­i­cal sur­vivor’s pos­si­ble demise.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Noga Tarnopol­sky and Laura King laura.king@latimes.com Twit­ter: @lau­rak­ingLAT Spe­cial correspondent Tarnopol­sky re­ported from Tel Aviv and Times staff writer King from Washington.

TEL AVIV — It has all the hall­marks of a clas­sic po­lit­i­cal scan­dal: a com­bat­ive leader’s force­ful de­nials, fam­ily mem­bers and in­ti­mates caught up in bur­geon­ing but slow-mov­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions, pros­e­cu­tors lean­ing on a tar­nished for­mer aide with tales to tell, ar­cane le­gal ar­gu­ments over power and its lim­its.

The set­ting is Is­rael, where Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, viewed by foes and ad­mir­ers alike as a con­sum­mate po­lit­i­cal sur­vivor, faces the grow­ing prospect of crim­i­nal charges that could ul­ti­mately dis­lodge him.

Even in a coun­try where scan­dal is a near-con­stant back­drop to daily life and a no­tably high tol­er­ance for po­lit­i­cal chaos is the na­tional norm, there’s a sense that this long-brew­ing cri­sis has reached a cru­cial junc­ture.

Au­thor­i­ties are still build­ing a case or cases against the prime min­is­ter, and le­gal ex­perts say the fil­ing of charges could still be months away. But events of re­cent days, an­a­lysts say, have dra­mat­i­cally height­ened the even­tual like­li­hood of an un­prece­dented public spec­ta­cle: the in­dict­ment of a sit­ting Is­raeli prime min­is­ter, the long­est-serv­ing since found­ing fa­ther David Ben-Gu­rion.

Last week, po­lice stated for­mally for the first time that Ne­tanyahu was sus­pected of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Then bomb­shell news broke: The prime min­is­ter’s Los An­ge­les-born for­mer chief of staff Ari Harow, a one­time con­fi­dant of the prime min­is­ter, had turned state’s wit­ness to avoid jail time on charges stem­ming from his busi­ness deal­ings.

This week came re­ports that the at­tor­ney gen­eral would soon an­nounce a sep­a­rate in­dict­ment against the first lady, Sara Ne­tanyahu, over al­leged mis­use of gov­ern­ment funds. And the Supreme Court ruled that the prime min­is­ter would have to dis­close logs of phone calls with se­nior ex­ec­u­tives of the pro-gov­ern­ment news­pa­per Is­rael Hayom, founded and fi­nanced by U.S. bil­lion­aire casino mogul Shel­don Adel­son.

Across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, news­pa­per headlines not only sounded a com­mon theme, but also em­ployed nearly iden­ti­cal word­ing. “How long might it take Ne­tanyahu to go?” the con­ser­va­tive Jerusalem Post asked Tues­day. “How long can Ne­tanyahu con­tinue to serve?” echoed the left-lean­ing Haaretz.

Ne­tanyahu’s de­fend­ers main­tain that Is­raeli law does not ex­plic­itly state that he would have to step down, even if charged with se­ri­ous crim­i­nal of­fenses. But in prac­ti­cal terms, serv­ing out a term sched­uled to last un­til 2019 while con­test­ing ac­cu­sa­tions in court would be im­mensely com­pli­cated and dif­fi­cult.

Sens­ing op­por­tu­nity, a num­ber of os­ten­si­ble po­lit­i­cal al­lies in his hard-right gov­ern­ing coali­tion have be­gun po­si­tion­ing them­selves as po­ten­tial suc­ces­sors.

Ne­tanyahu’s coali­tion chief, David Bi­tan, has been push­ing gov­ern­ment min­is­ters to be more ve­he­ment in their de­fense of the boss; a po­lit­i­cal car­toon showed him hold­ing a gun to their heads and ex­hort­ing, “With more feel­ing!”

De­clared ri­vals in­side and out­side Ne­tanyahu’s party in­clude up-and-comer Gideon Saar, who had al­ready been ex­pected to chal­lenge him for the Likud lead­er­ship, and for­mer Fi­nance Min­is­ter Yair Lapid, whose cen­trist party has been ris­ing in the polls.

The po­ten­tial charges against the prime min­is­ter, ac­cord­ing to a roundup by Haaretz, pri­mar­ily stem from two sep­a­rate in­ves­ti­ga­tions. At least one in­volves ac­cep­tance of lux­ury-themed gifts such as fine cigars, cham­pagne and jew­elry from wealthy Ne­tanyahu back­ers in­clud­ing Is­raeli­born Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer Arnon Milchan in ex­change for fa­vors.

An­other in­quiry cen­ters on al­le­ga­tions that the prime min­is­ter sought to make a deal to cut the cir­cu­la­tion po­ten­tial of Is­rael Hayom in ex­change for more pos­i­tive cov­er­age in a ri­val news­pa­per.

At 67, af­ter decades in the public eye, the Is­raeli leader is known to many Amer­i­cans. Dur­ing U.S. vis­its, he dis­penses elo­quent speeches and punchy in­ter­view quips in the smoothly col­lo­quial, Amer­i­can-ac­cented English he picked up dur­ing long stays in the coun­try as a young boy, a col­lege stu­dent, then a busi­ness­man and a diplo­mat.

He fa­mously feuded with Pres­i­dent Obama; in May, he was an ex­pan­sively ge­nial host when Pres­i­dent Trump vis­ited, show­er­ing his Amer­i­can vis­i­tor with praise.

That visit pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity to air some shared grudges as well as points of pride. Sara Ne­tanyahu was caught on a hot mi­cro­phone telling the U.S. first lady, Me­la­nia Trump, “The ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple in Is­rael — un­like the me­dia — they love us!” and adding, “We have some­thing in com­mon.”

Amid the gath­er­ing le­gal storm, Ne­tanyahu, who ve­he­mently de­nies any wrong­do­ing, ini­tially sought to present an un­ruf­fled im­age. In a Face­book video last week — a fa­vored means of com­muning with the public — he dis­missed the in­ves­ti­ga­tions as “back­ground noise.”

But by this week, news re­ports had him lash­ing out fu­ri­ously in closed-door talks with mem­bers of his coali­tion, in­sist­ing he would not be top­pled and warn­ing his min­is­ters not to un­der­mine him. Echo­ing tac­tics that have served him in pre­vi­ous po­lit­i­cal bat­tles, the prime min­is­ter moved to por­tray at­tacks on him as a broader at­tempt to un­der­mine Is­rael’s right wing.

Ne­tanyahu of­ten ral­lies his base — and it is a stri­dently loyal one — by whip­ping up fear of a com­mon en­emy. The prime min­is­ter drew cries of racism in 2015 with an omi­nous elec­tion­day warn­ing that Arab ci­ti­zens of Is­rael were flock­ing to the polls “in droves” to vote against him.

In an echo of that, he posted on Face­book on Mon­day a head­line from a right-wing news­pa­per that de­scribed Pales­tinian of­fi­cials as re­joic­ing at the prospect of him be­ing ejected from of­fice.

“Won’t hap­pen,” he wrote be­side it.

Ne­tanyahu’s predica­ment has drawn in­evitable com­par­isons to that of his pre­de­ces­sor, Ehud Olmert, who re­signed as prime min­is­ter when his in­dict­ment on cor­rup­tion charges was im­mi­nent. He was re­leased from jail in June af­ter serv­ing 16 months of a 27-month sen­tence.

The prime min­is­ter’s back­ers have called the in­ves­ti­ga­tions a witch hunt, and one of his Cab­i­net min­is­ters, Tzachi Hanegbi — who him­self weath­ered a per­jury con­vic­tion in 2010 — said it was too soon to rush to judg­ment. “At this stage, by law, ev­ery Is­raeli cit­i­zen, and cer­tainly the prime min­is­ter, must be pre­sumed com­pletely in­no­cent,” he told Is­rael Ra­dio.

Among Is­raelis, there is a keen aware­ness of Ne­tanyahu’s proven abil­ity to bounce back from re­ver­sals, even the most crush­ing ones. In 1999, af­ter a high-pro­file start as the youngest prime min­is­ter in Is­raeli his­tory, he quit pol­i­tics af­ter a hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feat at the polls by his for­mer army com­man­der, Ehud Barak. But a decade later, he was prime min­is­ter again.

Some com­men­ta­tors have taken an al­most Shake­spearean — or bi­b­li­cal — view of Ne­tanyahu’s tra­vails, deem­ing him blessed with clev­er­ness but cursed by an ex­cess of pride.

An­a­lyz­ing el­e­ments of his public and pri­vate life is some­thing of a na­tional par­lor game: the stern and for­bid­ding late fa­ther, the his­to­rian Ben­zion Ne­tanyahu; the hero’s death of the fa­vored older brother, Yonatan, in the dar­ing 1976 En­tebbe raid to free Is­raeli hostages held in Uganda by hi­jack­ers; Ne­tanyahu’s three mar­riages; his self-de­struc­tive be­hav­ior even in mo­ments of tri­umph.

“He learned noth­ing from the fall of his pre­de­ces­sor,” wrote Haaretz colum­nist Yossi Verter in a piece that read as much like an obit­u­ary as a cur­rent-af­fairs com­men­tary.

“He be­haved fool­ishly and care­lessly while los­ing all re­straints, moral­ity and his grip on things. The wis­dom is still there, but his flawed per­son­al­ity and long years in power, his sense of en­ti­tle­ment, his con­fi­dence that he would re­main prime min­is­ter as long as he wanted to, led him on a twisted path.”

Gali Tib­bon Pool Photo

IS­RAELI Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, left, pre­pares for a Cab­i­net meet­ing. Last week, po­lice said he was sus­pected of fraud, bribery and breach of trust.

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