Stakes for Likud as Netanyahu Indictment Looms
By David Isaac
February 16, 2019
The "Bezeq-Walla! Affair," or Case 4000 as it’s
been dubbed by Israeli media, is one of three corruption cases facing Israeli
prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s also the most serious in that
everyone, including the prime minister, believes that it will lead to an
indictment in the coming weeks—an X factor that could prove fatal to Likud
Party hopes in the April 9 elections.
The Israeli police, who recommend indictment, say that
Netanyahu helped Israeli tycoon Shaul Elovitch by pushing through the merger of
two companies he owned, telecommunications firm Bezeq and satellite TV company
Yes. (Elovitch made $269 million on the deal.)
In exchange, Netanyahu and his family would receive
favorable news coverage from Walla!, a news site Bezeq owned.
But the closer one looks, the less things add up. According
to all those involved, the merger of Bezeq-Yes was done by the book. The head of
Israel’s Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, Dr. Yifat Ben Hai Segev,
who served in the position from 2014-2018, said "There wasn’t any
pressure from the side of Netanyahu’s people to approve the merger."
Orly Yehezkel, a current member of the council, told
Israel’s Channel 20, "The discussions were professional discussions. The
people were professional people. … We received all the material. We sat there
hours. Paragraph after paragraph. Paragraph after paragraph. No one influenced
us. No one turned to us. No one requested anything from us."
Israel’s Antitrust Authority also signed off on the deal
in March 2014. Indeed, at that point, the merger had been under discussion for
six years already. Judges at the Antitrust Authority debated the matter in depth
twice in 2009, after a preliminary approval by that body in 2008. This was prior
to Netanyahu even reassuming the position of prime minister.
It’s not clear if the Antitrust Authority judges who
debated the matter were interviewed by the police, but it’s unlikely given
that investigators didn’t bother gathering evidence from any of the cable and
satellite council members, or the head of the Antitrust Authority who signed off
on the deal. Indeed, no one knows how many, if any, of the 150 senior officials
involved in approving the merger were asked to give testimony.
As far as the sympathetic coverage Netanyahu allegedly
received in return, a survey found that during the campaign period leading up to
the 2015 elections, 75 percent of the columns in Walla!were hostile to
Netanyahu. One would think that this would have been precisely the time that
Elovitch, owner of Walla!, would have made good on his end of the bargain.
Those who defend Netanyahu say that the favorable coverage,
which he didn’t in any case receive, shouldn’t be considered a form of
bribery at all.
Alan Dershowitz, who has weighed in on these supposed
corruption cases says, "It is very dangerous to start indicting people
based on negotiations with newspapers. That’s what politicians do." He
added, "To start interfering in the relationship between media and the
government poses a tremendous danger to free speech and a tremendous danger to
It doesn’t look like Israel’s attorney general will go
forward with the police recommendation to indict on the other even more dubious
cases, dubbed 1000 and 2000.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is accused of taking bribes in the
form of champagne and cigars from two tycoons, Israeli Arnon Milchen and
Australian James Packer, in return for political favors. Only it’s not clear
what they received. In the case of Milchen, Netanyahu worked against the
businessman’s interests in at least two instances.
In Case 2000, Netanyahu is said to have accepted better
coverage in Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot and on its website Ynet
in exchange for hobbling competing newspaper Israel Hayom. But Netanyahu
not only opposed the law that would have negatively impacted Israel Hayom,
he disbanded the government in order to keep it from passing.
Unfortunately for the Likud, Israelis don’t know much
about these cases. Like the American public when it comes to Trump-Russia
collusion, their eyes glaze over when the details are discussed. The Likud fears
this will work to their opponents’ advantage. The public will only hear the
buzzwords: "indictment," "bribery," and "breach of
trust." Opposition parties will pile on—they’ve been calling for
Netanyahu’s resignation since Case 1000 was introduced in December 2016—and
Likud voters will slip away.
Netanyahu’s efforts thus far may have been
counterproductive. On January 7, Netanyahu took to the airwaves for what was
billed as a "dramatic statement" that was covered by all major Israeli
news stations. Many assumed it had something to do with the defense situation.
When Netanyahu used the time to defend himself against the pending cases, he was
widely criticized and at least one station pulled its coverage mid-speech.
The Likud estimates an indictment will cost it four to five
seats, which could bring to power a left-leaning coalition. This makes it all
the more important from Likud’s perspective that the right-wing splinter
parties unite. According to internal Likud polling released last Thursday, three
of the right-wing parties will not garner enough votes to make it into the
Knesset. But if they unite, they’ll win eight seats, enough to guarantee a
The time to do so is running out. Parties have until
midnight Thursday to submit their final lists to Israel’s Central Elections