News from November 18-24
Netanyahu indicted, Israeli election update, and US settlement policy reversal
Hey everyone! This was probably the craziest week in Jewish and Israeli news since I started this newsletter, but I am going to try to be reasonably brief and I’ll also add an “honorable mentions” section for other important news. As always, feel free to send comments, questions, and concerns to email@example.com.
Also, I wrote an article that was published in the Jewish Week last week about what happens to students when parents get involved with concerning events on campus. You can check it out here.
What happened? After a lengthy investigation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust on Thursday. The charges stem from an investigation into three separate cases. Bribery is considered the most serious of the charges.
Case 1000: Netanyahu is accused of accepting gifts from Hollywood tycoon Arnon Milchan and billionaire James Packer. Members of Netanyahu’s family are also said to have demanded and received gifts (cigars and champagne) from Milchan and Packer. In exchange, Netanyahu is said to have taken actions to benefit Milchan, including helping Milchan obtain a visa and tax exemptions. Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said that these actions warranted charges of fraud and breach of trust because Netanyahu used his role as the Prime Minister to get the gifts. Netanyahu’s legal defense is that he is friends with Milchan and Packer and that the gifts were given from one friend to another, not from a businessman to a government official. Netanyahu also claims that he did not know of his family members’ requests for the gifts.
Case 2000: Netanyahu is accused of giving the impression that he would take a bribe, which, in Mandelblit’s opinion, constitutes charges of bribery and fraud. Netanyahu allegedly had a meeting with the publisher of Yediot Ahronot, one of the most prominent newspapers in Israel, where he suggested he could get a large rival newspaper, Israel Hayom, to reduce its free circulation. In exchange, Yediot Ahronot would give Netanyahu more favorable coverage. Although the deal never ended up happening, Mandelblit charged Netanyahu with bribery on the grounds that he made it known that bribing public officials was acceptable. Netanyahu’s legal team is countering by saying that Netanyahu never intended to follow through on the deal.
Case 4000: This is considered the most serious of the cases. Mandelblit accused Netanyahu of asking Shaul Elovitch, a businessman who owns Bezeq (a telecommunications company) and a news site called Walla News, for better coverage. In exchange, Netanyahu, who was the Communications Minister at the time, allegedly changed regulations that netted Elovitch around $500,000,000. Although there is no evidence of explicit coordination, Mandelblit said the quid-pro-quo scheme was severe enough to warrant charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Netanyahu’s legal defense is that good coverage doesn’t constitute a bribe and that Netanyahu wasn’t aware of the quid-pro-quo.
What has been the fallout? Immediately after Mandelblit announced the indictment, Netanyahu gave a press conference where he dismissed the charges as an attempted coup. He urged listeners to “investigate the investigators.”
Netanyahu’s indictment really complicates coalition negotiations, but more on that in a bit. The big question with the indictment is whether or not Netanyahu has to resign. He has said he will not leave, but a panel assembled by Mandelblit (who was a Netanyahu appointee) will determine whether or not Netanyahu can continue to serve as the Prime Minister when the indictment is formally filed as well as whether or not he has to give up the other ministerial portfolios he holds (health, agriculture, social affairs, Diaspora affairs). According to Israeli law, ministers cannot keep their positions while under indictment, but the law is unclear when it comes to prime ministers. Expect a lengthy judicial process to answer that question. The reason this is such a controversial case is that it is entirely uncharted territory for Israel’s legal system. Plenty of Israeli politicians have been convicted of crimes, but there has never been an indicted sitting prime minister who was trying to form a new government, which raises a critical question: Can an indicted MK even assemble a government legally? We’ll see!
Another significant issue is whether or not Netanyahu can seek legislation that would give him immunity. It’s an extremely complicated process to explain in detail, so if you want to read more about it, read this. Essentially, if he wants immunity, he will either have to get it through the courts or by passing legislation through the Knesset, which is unlikely to happen, given the current numbers.
In any event, the trial will not begin for a long time because of the various appeals processes. Even when the trial starts, it will likely last years. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was indicted in 2009, but his conviction wasn’t finalized until it was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2016. Buckle up folks, it’s going to be a while!
Update: Since I wrote this, Mandelblit has issued his initial ruling. Netanyahu can remain Prime Minister for now. Mandelblit declined to rule on the portfolio issue and the government assembly question for this decision.
Further reading: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/netanyahu-charged-bribery-fraud-corruption-israel-election-1.8137771 (Haaretz)
Does Israel have a government yet? No.
What’s new? On Wednesday, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz “returned” the mandate to President Reuven Rivlin, acknowledging that the could not form a government. There were some last-minute rumblings that Avigdor Liberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party might join Gantz and enable him to create a minority government with the support of the Israeli-Arab parties, but he ultimately did not join Gantz. Similarly, Likud and Blue and White could not arrive at a compromise to form a unity government because Blue and White would not allow Netanyahu to serve as Prime Minister first while he was likely to be indicted.
What will happen now? There will be a 21 day period where any MK can attempt to assemble a government. It was unlikely that anything would change in those three weeks, but then Mandelblit announced Netanyahu’s indictment on Thursday. Intrigue!
How does the indictment change things? The indictment changes everything. Now that Netanyahu is indicted, members of Likud are beginning to question whether or not it is wise to tie their political future to a leader who might go to jail. Indeed, Netanyahu’s chief rival within Likud, Gideon Sa’ar, has already announced that he intends to challenge Netanyahu for the leadership of the party. Netanyahu said that Likud would hold primaries in six weeks, but it is not really a compromise since a primary would have to happen before the next election anyway. What would change things is if a primary occurs during the 21-day period. If that happens, there would be a chance that Netanyahu would be unseated and replaced by an MK more willing to compromise with Blue and White. Don’t hold your breath, though. Netanyahu benefits from going to another election because he would remain Prime Minister for the start of the legal proceedings stemming from his indictment. As a result, his case would be heard by a panel of three judges in Jerusalem, rather than one judge in Tel Aviv.
What to look for? The most important thing that could happen in these three weeks would be a Likud primary. Watch for open signs of dissent from Likud. I’d also look out for interesting governing proposals from Blue and White. In the wake of the indictment announcement, Gantz proposed a government where he would serve first and Netanyahu could serve the last two years if he is cleared. It’s unlikely that Netanyahu would accept such a proposal, but it’s worth watching the creative solutions proposed by both sides.
What happened? The United States broke with four decades of policy by announcing that it would no longer consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be illegal under international law. American policymakers had previously described the settlements as illegitimate in a document called the Hansell Memorandum because, in their opinion, it is not legal to move civilians into occupied territories under international law. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to reverse that precedent marks a significant departure from American policy towards Israel and the Palestinian territories. The timing–the announcement came just before Gantz’s mandate was set to expire–left some questioning whether the decision was meant to help Netanyahu pressure Gantz in coalition negotiations.
What does this mean? The decision itself doesn’t change the reality on the ground in the West Bank. However, it does provide a justification for the Israeli government to annex parts of the West Bank, which is definitely within the realm of possibility because Netanyahu made it a critical campaign promise. Even Gantz has expressed tepid support for annexing the Jordan Valley. Since the United States reversed its policy, Netanyahu has pledged to carry out the annexation once a government is formed. The Israeli settler movement sees the announcement as a critical opportunity to expand settlements with the United States’ permission, especially since Democrats will almost certainly revoke the approval if they win the presidency in 2020.
So what? The move is the latest in a spate of United States decisions that favor Israel over the Palestinians. Similar to the decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the American recognition of the Golan Heights as being part of Israel, the move was not paired with anything that would clearly benefit the Palestinians. Accordingly, the reversal has been condemned by critics, most notably 106 House Democrats, who claimed that the decision makes it harder to ensure Israel’s status as a Jewish, democratic state in the long run.
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