What a Difference a Witness Makes

Gali Tibbon, Pool via AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem. 

Yes, I know that schadenfreude is an unworthy feeling. And I know that Benjamin Netanyahu hasn't yet been indicted for corruption, and if indicted he might not necessarily be convicted, and that his coalition is, for the moment, holding together. I know that the prime minister and his hangers-on are already throwing disrepute on the entire Israeli judicial system to defend him, at least until the hangers-on turn against him, as his allies usually do—including his ex-chief of staff, who just turned state witness.

And yes, I know that even if Netanyahu is forced to resign, early elections might merely bring a different right-wing politician to power.

I think this covers most of the reasons I'm not supposed to be excited that the corruption cases against Netanyahu just became much, much more solid.

Having listed them, I admit: I am still happy that the day seems closer when “Netanyahu” will be nothing more than a name that will stump desperate Israeli high school students who are asked in exams to list his accomplishments as prime minister. (The future wonks among them will know that the answer is, “None.”)

I do not, however, intend to drink expensive pink champagne to celebrate. Unlike Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister's wife, I do not (allegedly) have a wealthy Hollywood producer who sends me a regular supply of the stuff.

The champagne is part of one of corruption cases. It goes with the boxes of high-priced cigars for Netanyahu himself, both of which allegedly came from Israeli-born producer Arnon Milchan. The prime minister claims these were just gifts from a friend, as was the ski vacation abroad that an Australian billionaire gave the couple's pampered son. Police and prosecutors suspect a quid pro quo for the gifts.

The police like labeling big investigations with big numbers, so this is one is named Case 1,000. The allegations are of conventional corruption: trading favors for high living. 

Case 2,000 is on another level. It involves using power to corrupt the free press. Netanyahu, it's alleged, negotiated with Noni Mozes, the owner of the mass-circulation daily Yediot Aharonot, to give him more favorable coverage. In return, the prime minister would act to reduce the market share of rival tabloid Israel Hayom, a freebie owned by Netanyahu's billionaire American backer Sheldon Adelson.

And there's the still murky Case 3,000, which has to do with national security. Netanyahu's cousin and personal lawyer was allegedly mixed up with bribery used to influence a billion-dollar submarine purchase from Germany. So far, there's been no public claim that Netanyahu is directly involved, but his decisions on arms deals look fishy.

It could be worse. I'm happy to report that Netanyahu is not suspected of collusion with a hostile foreign power to guarantee his election. Israel, thank heavens, is not some kind of banana republic.

All these investigations have gone on for a long time. They became background noise. Then bang! At the end of last week, the police officially stated in court papers that Netanyahu is suspected of bribery and other offenses in Cases 1,000 and 2,000. The next day, Netanyahu's former chief of staff, Ari Harow, signed an agreement with prosecutors to become a state's witness in both cases. Harow was originally arrested in yet another case. On his phone, police found recordings of the Netanyahu-Mozes negotiations.

Then, over the weekend, Israel's Channel Two television news reported that Adelson had given incriminating testimony about Netanyahu. Adelson reportedly told Israeli police that the prime minister asked him to cut the size of Israel Hayom's weekend edition—meaning that Netanyahu took action to carry out the deal in Case 2,000. Et tu, Sheldon?

Actually, that's a silly question. One of the defining characteristics of Netanyahu's career is that allies become rivals or opponents.

Right now, cabinet ministers and other Netanyahu sycophants are crying “witch hunt” and claiming that the media is trying to topple the elected government. Netanyahu did not learn this defense from some other country's politics. Victimhood has always been part of his persona. 

The consensus assessment is that the investigations will last months more before the likely indictments. Meanwhile, it's fair to guess that whatever Likud politicians say in public, they are planning their campaigns to succeed Netanyahu. They are weighing his public wrath right now against their memories of him slighting them in the past and their chances for the future. They await the moment to announce sorrowfully that he must go.

In theory, the Likud can force Netanyahu out and choose a new leader, who will form a new government. If coalition partners demand new elections, the right could win again. Voters don't change their basic beliefs because particular politicians have misused their trust.

But they can switch parties, especially in a multiparty system where the choices are many and campaign season begins with chaos. Old parties split, new ones emerge, strange alliances form.

Ari Harow's deal with prosecutors is likely to be the beginning of chaos season. This is scary but also an opportunity. Netanyahu's long years in power have been a time of withering hope and rotting institutions. I choose to take his likely demise as reason for hope. 

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