The police are still short of evidence for a bribes suit against Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, even after a third state witness and a second year of probing.
The latest opinion polls attest to two parallel trends on the Israeli street: The prime minister’s right-of-center Likud would come out ahead in a general election today, improving its current 26 seats in the 120-member Knesset to 30 or even 36; and 56 percent don’t trust the law enforcement authorities, i.e. the police, the state prosecution and the courts, including the supreme court.
These trends are growing out of popular outrage over the way the prime minister and his family are being treated by the police and the mainstream media, which refer to them as convicted criminals without benefit of due process. There is a sense that if these authorities are powerful and ruthless enough to persecute the highest in the land – presenting them as guilty before being proven innocent – it could happen to anyone.
Ordinary people are saying they would vote Likud for the first time, although they had never done so before, as a mark of protest – especially after the police performance on Friday, March 2. As the country celebrated Purim with parades, funny costumes and parties, Netanyahu and his wife Sarah were closeted separately for police grilling sessions lasting five hours, during which they were confronted with testimonies by witnesses held at separate facilities. The police spokesman proudly boasted later about their “military-style” operation and leaked word from “unnamed sources” that hundreds of millions of shekels were now known to have changed hands in bribes.
This performance occurred three days before the prime minister was scheduled to sit down with President Donald Trump at the White House and discuss matters of vital importance to national security.
But that was not the end of it. Word that the Netanyahu family’s former spin doctor Nir Hetetz had turned state witness was dropped on the prime minister’s head on the day he and his wife Sarah were received at the White House with great affection and respect. The prime minister retorted: “One or a thousand state witnesses won’t change the fact that I have nothing to hide.”
People were further shocked when television reporting that night relegated the Netanyahu-Trump talks to a minor slot in the newscast and led off with long harangues by “reporters” about how state witness Hefetz had described ugly family scenes between Netanyahu, his wife with a tantrum by their son Yair, over a decision on a security matter by the prime minister. The reporter knew all about it, although the Hefetz testimony was covered by a gag order. Even if this piece of cheap gossip was gospel, people were asking how it supported a criminal case against the prime minister? So what was the point of running it? And couldn’t it wait until Netanyahu had returned home?
Media reporting from “unnamed sources” almost certainly draws on pointed leaks, either from the police probe and the prosecution – for pressure on suspects – or from the lawyers involved in the case to drum up custom. Yet scraps of damaging gossip, smears and speculation are presented in TV newscasts and screaming news headlines day by day as fact. Each time, it is claimed that the police have the last nail for driving into the prime minister’s coffin – and it leads nowhere. On Monday night, one TV reporter went all the way. He announced: “A senior source told me that [the police] had completed Dossier 4000. Bribery equals jail.” (This dossier covers the allegation that Netanyahu gave illicit benefits to Shaul Elovitch, owner of the Bezeq telecom company and the Wallah online news site, for favorable coverage).
The TV presenter then sneered that Netanyahu, who was sitting at that moment in the Oval Office with the US president, was no doubt more preoccupied with the case against him than the subjects of their conversation – yet another “fact” fed to a by now highly skeptical audience.
This skepticism is all the more serious when it extends to the police. If all they have to offer the media are smears and gossip, how solid can their case be? is a common question. Three suspects, former close aides or confidants of the prime minister, have turned state witness – Hefetz claimed he had been held for two weeks in inhuman conditions to break him down – yet the police have so far gathered at the most material for a breach of faith charge, a humiliating letdown for the police after more than a year of serious corruption charges against a sitting prime minister. Their conduct in the case has given rise to a spreading consciousness that something is seriously wrong with law enforcement, if the axiom that no one is above the law in a democratic society can be twisted around to mean that no one is safe from the law.