Israeli Prime Minister visited the White House today, engaging in low-key but friendly discussions with Donald Trump. He might want to consider sticking around for a longer visit — a much longer visit — given the news back home. Investigators announced earlier today that his longtime spokesman has been granted full immunity and is now cooperating with a corruption probe that has seized headlines in Israel, Ha’aretz reported this morning:
Nir Hefetz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “spin doctor” and confidant, is in talks with police to turn state’s evidence in the bribery case involving the Bezeq telecom giant and the Walla news site. Hefetz is suspected of receiving bribes and obstructing justice as part of what is called Case 4000. …
At the heart of Case 4000 is the suspicion that Netanyahu acted to provide Bezeq and its former chairman, Shaul Elovitch, with financial breaks worth hundreds of millions of shekels in exchange for positive coverage in the telecommunications company’s popular Walla website. The prime minister has rejected the accusations and insisted that all his decisions “were made in businesslike fashion and based on professional factors, professional testimonies and legal counsel.”
Hefetz testified in the case in December. Since his arrest two weeks ago, he has been questioned under caution not only in the telecom case but also for a suspected bribery offer to a former judge. So far he had refused to answer the investigator’s questions.
Later, ABC News reports, police confirmed that they had cut the deal with Hefetz. Why did investigators give Hefetz full immunity? The aide apparently has audio files to back up his testimony:
Police confirmed that longtime Netanyahu family spokesman Nir Hefetz had agreed to turn state’s witness, but would not elaborate further as a gag order has been imposed on the case.
Hefetz was arrested two weeks ago on suspicion of helping promote regulation worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel’s Bezeq telecom company in return for favorable coverage of Netanyahu and his family by the company’s popular news website.
Israeli media reported that he signed the agreement in return for full immunity. The Haaretz newspaper said he will deliver recordings of the prime minister and his wife as part of the agreement.
Hefetz was released on Sunday, a day before Monday’s dramatic development. Shlomo Filber, another long-time confidant to Netanyahu, has also agreed to be a state witness in the case.
That sounds pretty grim for Netanyahu, but it depends on what Hefetz can actually produce. Corruption charges are tough to sustain, especially against a popular officeholder, unless one can produce a quid pro quo smoking gun. The deal with investigators suggests that Hefetz can supply one or more, and he would have been in a position to see any quid pro quo if it took place.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu and Trump will discuss the status of peace negotiations with the Palestinians and the threat from Iran. The latter is especially important for Netanyahu, as Israeli voters may care a lot more about security than corruption as Tehran continues to threaten Israel, including through its proxies. On that score, they may have a “bonding experience,” one nat-sec analyst tells Fox:
President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump welcome Israeli PM Netanyahu and wife Sara Netanyahu to the White House. pic.twitter.com/R7sxDRrWKZ
— NBC News (@NBCNews) March 5, 2018
Trump is attempting to act on international issues and negotiate with world leaders amid ongoing federal probes into whether anybody on his 2016 presidential campaign colluded with Russia to win the White House race, while Netanyahu is facing allegations of corruption that have resulted in calls for his resignation.
“The two might actually find this a bonding experience,” Alan Mendoza, a national security expert who founded the British think tank the Henry Jackson Society, said Sunday on Fox News’ “America’s News HQ.” Mendoza also pointed out that Netanyahu has not been charged in the corruption probe and that he’s been investigated “many, many times.”
Bonding experiences aside, Netanyahu has gained significant political capital from Trump’s decision to move the US embassy. Trump gave Netanyahu a boost on that score in the meeting:
JUST IN: Trump says he may visit Israel to open new Jerusalem embassy pic.twitter.com/6R0g2aXYKI
— Reuters Politics (@ReutersPolitics) March 5, 2018
Really? Trump didn’t bother to show up for the opening of the new embassy in London due to protests planned over his presence. How will that fly with the Brits? This might be enough to push off any prosecution until he retires from office, but Netanyahu has another option to at least delay any action:
The investigations have touched off speculation that Netanyahu could call a snap election to renew his public mandate. Opinion polls show his right-wing Likud party would win the most seats in parliament, despite the corruption suspicions.
An election campaign would also likely delay any legal proceedings against the prime minister.
The time to do that would be sooner rather than later, before other defections amongst Netanyahu confidantes start denting the goodwill from the embassy move announcement. For now, it looks like business as usual — but with a strong emphasis on security, which might see him through this all the way to a soft landing.