(January 19, 2017 / JNS) Two separate investigations into the conduct of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have dominated headlines in the Israeli media during the past several weeks.
While Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has yet to announce whether any indictments are forthcoming and many details of the cases remain unknown, many Israeli journalists and members of the political opposition are piecing together initial details to reach what experts are warning could be premature convictions, when allegations have not yet led to any formal charges.
Dr. Jonathan Spyer, director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC) university, said it should come as no surprise that many journalists are “hostile to Netanyahu.”
“There’s a fractious relationship between Netanyahu and much of the media,” Spyer told JNS.org.
The problem, noted Spyer, is that “we don’t really know the full extent” to which any criminal wrongdoing occurred or didn’t occur in the Netanyahu cases. “We have to learn more about the details,” Spyer said.
In the first case, known as Case 1000, the prime minister and his wife Sara are being investigated for receiving gifts including cigars and champagne—reportedly worth as much as hundreds of thousands of shekels—from wealthy friends such as Israeli film producer Arnon Milchan. Netanyahu is alleged to have personally phoned U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to assist in a request to have Milchan’s American visa extended, which could represent a scenario of quid pro quo.
In the second case, known as Case 2000, the prime minister is accused of colluding in 2014 with Arnon Mozes, publisher of the Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, to advance a parliamentary bill that would hurt Yedioth’s major competitor, the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom free newspaper, in exchange for more favorable coverage from Yedioth. Yet the bill was never advanced, as Netanyahu called for early elections in Israel. Further, Yedioth’s editor claims to know nothing of any such deal, and by all accounts coverage of Netanyahu in that paper was far from favorable.
A short excerpt of a longer call between Netanyahu and Mozes was leaked to the media this week, fueling allegations about misconduct by the prime minister and casting doubt on the role of predominantly left-leaning Israeli media outlets as honest assessors of news.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu responded to what he termed “a thought-out pressure campaign” to derail his government.
“In recent days, a large media campaign is being conducted against me in order to take down the Likud government that I’m leading,” Netanyahu said at his weekly cabinet meeting. “Every evening, parts of the transcripts, which were selected carefully, are read aloud. I’m of course prohibited from commenting on them and showing the public the real picture, which shows that no crime was committed.”
Netanyahu insisted that the Israeli public “isn’t buying this attack. The public is smart. Many Israeli citizens support us.”
But according to a poll conducted by Mina Tzemach and the Midgam Research Institute, and published on Israel’s Channel 2 network, 54 percent of Israelis say they do not believe Netanyahu’s claim that nothing will come of the investigations.
Mitchell Barak, an Israeli pollster and public opinion expert, cautioned that the conclusions already being presented by many within the media and Israel’s political opposition may not lead to an indictment or conviction of Netanyahu.
“For those that think this is an obituary for Netanyahu, that obituary has been written many times. Who knows if this is going to be the one,” Barak, founder and director of the KEEVOON Global Research survey and strategic communications firm, told JNS.org.
According to Barak—who asserts that both cases against Netanyahu “are very damning”—public opinion about the prime minister can generally be drawn along political lines.
“If you look at how [Netanyahu’s opposition on the political] left would view this, they are horrified that the prime minister is cooking up with the publisher of Israel’s largest grossing newspaper how to distort the truth,” Barak said, referring to Yedioth Ahronoth. “If you are a Netanyahu voter to the right of center, or a religious voter, you most likely believe that the newspapers have always belonged to an elite left that is distorting the news, promoting the peace process and slamming right-wing officials with scandals that turned out to be nothing.”
IDC’s Spyer, however, said he “would not be jumping on the notion that we have a squeaky clean wonderful prime minister that is being hunted by a vengeful group of politically biased journalists.”
“I’m not jumping into the camp of people accusing Netanyahu, but I also have no intention of blindly defending him, and deciding who is right and who is wrong,” he said.
“The responsible thing I would suggest now is that we need to wait, and not to be jumping to any conclusions either way right now….If an indictment was issued by the attorney general, nobody would accuse Mandelblit of having a political bias against Netanyahu. He is somebody who was actually appointed by Netanyahu,” added Spyer.
Addressing the media this week, Mandelblit said that “conducting an investigation in the middle of a media, social and political frenzy has imposed on law enforcement and myself a tremendous responsibility to make sure that all investigative considerations are made professionally.
“I want to publicly say that my people and I, as well as the Israel Police, will continue to act on cases such as this with professionalism and with our only goal being to arrive at the truth and continue the rule of law,” he said. “There is no other option and we will not deviate from this.”
In Spyer’s estimation, the Israeli legal system that is investigating Netanyahu and may ultimately indict him “is one of the best in the world.”
“It is the expectation, and it’s a reasonable expectation of every Israeli citizen up to and including the prime minister, that there will be a fair hearing from our legal process,” Spyer said. “I suggest that we wait and see if an indictment is indeed issued. If it is, then I would suspect that means there is some pretty serious stuff to look into. If it’s not, then the prime minister can get back to doing his job effectively.”