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Trump and Netanyahu — ‘birds of a feather’ getting together

Feb 28,2018 - Last updated at Feb 28,2018

Donald Trump's December 6th decision to shift the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his announcement last week that the ambassador would move to the holy city in mid-May in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the proclamation of Israel could shore up, at least temporarily, the increasingly challenged premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu. He is set to meet Trump on March 5th in the Oval Office in a lovefest choreographed to improve the Israeli's chances of surviving scandal on his home front.

Netanyahu faces criminal indictments in no less than four cases of bribery and fraud investigated by the Israeli police and submitted to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a Netanyahu appointee who has yet to press charges. In the first case, the police found Netanyahu and his wife Sarah had received gifts of cigars, champagne, jewellery and other items worth $283,100 between 2007 and 2016 from Australian businessman James Packer and Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, who are said to have received political favours and financial benefits in return.

Packer is said to have provided Netanyahu's son, Yair, free flights and luxury hotel accommodations, as well as tickets for the entire family to attend a concert by Packer's ex-fiancée Mariah Carey. Packer argues he is acting as a friend.

However, Netanyahu stands accused of intervening with US officials to obtain for billionaire Milchan a ten-year US visa and promoting a law to extend for repatriating the Israelis a ten-year tax exemption on income earned abroad. The effort was obstructed from the finance ministry. Netanyahu also advanced Milchan's interests in the Israeli television sector and boosted a deal benefiting Milchan's Indian business partner.

A second case involves a proposal from Netanyahu to Arnon Mozes, publisher of Yediot Ahronoth newspaper, to promote legislation that would undermine rival daily, Israel Hayom, in exchange for positive coverage of the prime minister's actions and policies.

The third case implicates close Netanyahu aides in bribing Israeli defence officials to get them to purchase German submarines and other naval vessels. One of the accused, Michael Ganor, testified in exchange for a year in prison and a $2.8 million fine that an attorney enjoying close relations with Netanyahu used his influence to convince him to approve the deal.

In the fourth case, unveiled last month, he is charged with providing favours to Israel's Bezeq telecommunications company in exchange for favourable coverage on its Walla! news portal. This case became a fresh threat to Netanyahu when Communications Ministry Director-General Shlomo Filber, the man who handled the deal, turned state's witness.

Netanyahu has dismissed all the charges. Under Israeli law, he would only be compelled to resign if he is convicted, and the conviction is upheld at the appeals level, a lengthy process likely to outlast his present term and, even, next term in office.

However, a conviction would escalate public pressure on him to step down as well as encourage rivals to bring him down. So far, his right-wing Likud party and even more right-wing coalition partners have stood by Netanyahu, although a December television poll revealed 60 per cent of Israelis thought he should resign if the police call for indictments. These are set to begin with the first two cases.

The attorney general could delay issuing indictments, but if he takes too long to investigate the charges or refuses to press charges, he could be challenged in the Supreme Court. If indictments appear imminent, Netanyahu could call for fresh elections, which his Likud party would be expected to win, giving him another term in office.

Netanyahu, like his chum Donald Trump, can count on the loyalty of his political base and the erosion of popular expectations over the behaviour of politicians. In 1977, Yitzak Rabin resigned during his first term when it was revealed his wife Leah had maintained a foreign bank account containing a few thousand dollars after the couple had left Washington, where he had served as Israeli ambassador. In 2008, Ehud Olmert stepped down after his indictment for taking bribes while he was mayor of Jerusalem. He was cleared of this charge but imprisoned for over a year for breach of trust and witness tampering.

While Netanyahu's supporters remain enthusiastic, his opponents and critics have rallied in Tel Aviv every Saturday over the past few weeks. For them, the agenda includes his government's harsh treatment of the Palestinians, expanding land expropriations, house demolitions, and plans to annex portions of the West Bank. Analysts suggest Netanayhu could shift rightward to maintain his grip on power. This would deepen the already-deep divisions between right and left in Israel.

Trump has already shifted to the hard right ahead of the findings of investigations into connections between his presidential campaign and Russia, and he and his entourage are constantly telling flagrant lies. By contrast, in 1974, President Richard Nixon was compelled to stand down due to lies, rather than the illegal break-in at Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate complex by burglars hired by his re-election campaign. Unlike Nixon, Trump has escaped accountability for his thousands of lies since he entered the White House, and his base does not find this distressing. Trump and Netanyahu, as they say, “birds of a feather” getting together, can be expected to grin for photographers when they meet in the White House next week.

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IT IS LIKE STORING FIRE CRACKERS IN A DEPO OF FUEL.

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