Roni Bar-On is a genial, right-wing Israeli lawyer with a fondness for bright blue shirts and London roulette tables. Until last January, his most notable public post had been chairman of a Jerusalem soccer team sponsored by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. Then, to the surprise of the entire Israeli legal community, Netanyahu appointed Bar-On as attorney general, the top prosecutor in the land. Bar-On’s glaring lack of qualifications for such a sensitive job set off a firestorm of criticism. A day later, Bar-On resigned. But amid the resulting hubbub, Israel Television levelled a bombshell allegation: Bar-On had been appointed as part of a secret political deal to help a key government backer on trial for corruption. At the time, Netanyahu’s tourism minister, Moshe Katzav, remarked: “If it is true, the government will fall. If it is not true, the television will fall.”
By last Saturday night in Israel, it was Netanyahu and his coalition government that were teetering. After three months of investigating the allegations, police recommended that Netanyahu, the media-sawy former diplomat who narrowly won office 11 months ago, be indicted for fraud and breach of trust. Veterans as far to the right as Yitzhak Shamir and as far left as Shimon Peres,
both former prime ministers, spoke of an unprecedented political “earthquake.” At 47, Netanyahu was fighting for his political life. And the peace process,
which he promised to complete, had been put on hold while the nation faced the threat of escalating violence.
A decision on the indictment by Bar-On’s widely respected successor as attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, was expected before the April 21 onset of the Jewish feast of Passover, which commemorates the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Netanyahu vowed to fight, but even some of his own colleagues believed the writing was on the wall. “Netanyahu will definitely have to go,” one minister said privately. “If not, he will have to be pushed. Even if he is not indicted, it will end in disgrace.” That view was seconded by coalition MP Yehudah Harel, a founder of the small Third Way party. “I don’t believe it can last,” he told Maclean’s. “Public opinion will not tolerate what we can already see has been going on.” In fact, Israelis seemed divided on the mechanics of the issue. A poll in the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot logged 25 per cent in favor of Netanyahu’s immediate resignation, 20 per cent for resignation only if he is indicted, and 52 per cent only if convicted.
The scandal began after Netanyahu railroaded Bar-On’s appointment through a reluctant cabinet without giving ministers time to check his credentials. Then, television’s Channel One reported that the religious party Shas had threatened to withhold the votes of its two ministers and 10 MPs from the government if Bar-On did not get the job. In turn, asserted crime reporter Ayala Hasson, Bar-On would go easy on Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who was on trial for corruption. According to the report, Deri expected either a plea bargain or a pardon tied to Israel’s 50th anniversary in 1998. If Shas had pulled out (it did not), it would have denied Netanyahu the votes to approve redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Hebron, on which the peace process with the Palestinians depended.
Netanyahu denied the allegations—and especially his own involvement—but nonetheless authorized an investigation. The result was the 995-page report, still unpublished by week’s end, that landed on Rubinstein’s desk. In addition to Netanyahu, the police also urged prosecutors to charge two of his closest Likud party allies—Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and the director general of the prime minister’s office, Avigdor Lieberman—with related offences. As well, Shas leader Deri faced a potential new prosecution for extortion. If Netanyahu
were convicted, he could be sentenced to up to three years in prison.
But the prime minister, who again insisted that he is innocent, was clearly not going to go quietly. “We are staying in the place that has been assigned to us by the people and by history,” he vowed at an adulatory Likud meeting on April 17. ‘We shall continue to lead the state until the year 2000, even beyond the year 2000! The truth will win!”
Some of his Likud colleagues were less supportive. Netanyahu’s high-handed manner has made him powerful enemies within his own ranks. They include Finance Minister Dan Meridor, Foreign Affairs Minister David Levy and Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon. January’s Hebron redeployment alienated many in his nationalist constituency. And as the week ended, cracks were already visible in his brittle eight-party coalition, which controls 67 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani, leader of the centrist Third Way, said that his party, holding four seats, would bolt and demand new elections in the event of an indictment. Another junior coalition partner with seven seats, the Russian immigrants’ Yisrael Be’aliya, was also weighing its options. The party’s leader, former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky, said in January that if even 10 per cent of the television allegations were true, the government would not deserve to survive. If both those parties jumped ship, Netanyahu would lose his majority.
The upheaval also sank any chance of a national-unity government involving Labour, which had been promoted as the best hope to salvage the peace process. Even Shimon Peres, the idea’s most ardent advocate, wrote it off. We have to prepare for new elections immediately,” he said, a view echoed by war hero Ehud Barak, the frontrunner to succeed the 74-year-old Peres as Labour leader.
Still, the police recommendation to prosecute Netanyahu came with reservations, which prompted his aides to protest that there was no case against him. The investigators admitted that their evidence hinged on one “central” witness not named in the report. Legal commentators cited this as a possible deterrent to the attorney general, who by law is the only person who can indict a prime minister. Rubinstein, 49, is a former district judge, cabinet secretary and diplomat who negotiated peace treaties with the Egyptians and the Palestinians. Respected for his integrity and independence, he is also known for his caution. Although he was appointed from outside the coalition parties, he is politically conservative, like Likud’s supporters, and an Orthodox Jew.
After getting the report, Rubinstein was locked in a dilemma over risking an indictment that could potentially not stand the test of trial. The Israeli media reported that the key police witness is Dan Avi-Yitzhak, an aggressive criminal lawyer who was an earlier (and better qualified) candidate than Bar-On for attorney general. Aryeh Deri torpedoed the nomination because Avi-Yitzhak was defending him in his corruption trial, and Deri did not want to lose his services. But Avi-Yitzhak evidently retaliated by withdrawing from the case and talking to the police. Although investigators recognized that Avi-Yitzhak’s grievance could taint him as a witness against Netanyahu, they went ahead anyway. In a published letter to the prosecutors, chief investigating officer Cmdr. Sandor Mazor said that while police were “aware” of the problem, “we believe, following a deep acquaintance with this witness, that his testimony is reliable.”
Netanyahu faced a series of unsettling scenarios. Under certain circumstances, any citizen could petition the Supreme Court to have him charged. And the same new election law that made Netanyahu the first directly elected prime minister offered various ways in which Knesset members could remove him. With 61 votes, they could force new elections for the premier and parliament; at 80-plus, they could impeach Netanyahu but avoid going to the polls themselves. Even if MPs were to pull back from the brink, public revulsion could still force Netanyahu to quit. “He will find it difficult to wash out the stain of fraud and breach-of-trust allegations,” commented Ya’acov Erez, editor of the popular daily Ma’ariv. “It will be even more difficult to lead Israel through one of its most trying times. His only option is to go to the electorate.” Netanyahu’s battle was only beginning.
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