IN THE CLEAR?
MARCH 21, 1997
Israel's attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, decided not to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Sunday, contrary to police recommendations. The Jewish leader's legal and political trouble, however, may not be over. After an ITN background report, Magaret Warner discusses the attorney general's decision with David Makovsky, chief diplomatic correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, and special correspondent for U.S. News & World Report.
MARGARET WARNER: Last week a political shock jolted Israel. Police investigators recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be charged with corruption. But yesterday the country's top legal authorities, the state prosecutors, made a different decision. We start with this report prepared yesterday by Tristana Moore of Independent Television News.
A RealAudio version of of this segment is available.
April 7, 1997
Benjamin Netanyahu comes to Washington to save the peace process.
April 4, 1997:
Middle East Forum: Mohammed Halaj and Amos Perlmutter answer your questions.
March 24, 1997:
Margaret Warner talks with Shlomo Gur of the Israeli Embassy and Khalil Foutah of the PLO.
March 4, 1997:
Charles Krause talks with Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Arafat advisor.
February 13, 1997:
Charles Krause discusses Clinton and Netanyahu's meeting with Dore Gold, foreign policy aide to Netanyahu.
January 15, 1997:
Jim Lehrer leads a discussion of the Hebron deal.
December 18, 1996:
Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski debate a critical letter sent by eight former U.S. foreign policy chiefs to Israel. -
October 15, 1996:
Warren Christopher talks about the peace process.
October 2, 1996:
A NewsHour interview with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk.
October 1, 1996:
A NewHour look at the emergency White House Peace Summit between Netanyahu and Arafat.
May 31, 1996:
Israeli Election Forum : The NewsHour's Charles Krause answered questions on Netanyahu's victory.
May 23, 1996:
Seeing the Future : a look at the Israeli elections.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the Middle-East.
The United States and the Search for Peace in the Middle East
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The Jerusalem Post
TRISTANA MOORE, ITN: It was a decision that everyone had been waiting for and most had anticipated. After spending a week poring over a thousand page police report, state prosecutors announced that they would not be pressing charges against Prime Minister Netanyahu and his aides. The state attorney said the whole police report was based on insufficient evidence.
ELYAKIM RUBINSTEIN, Attorney General, Israel: (speaking through interpreter) We have decided to close the files for lack of evidence against the prime minister, the minister of justice, and attorney Bar-On.
TRISTANA MOORE: In a televised speech to the nation the Israeli Prime Minister was quick to protest his innocence.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Prime Minister, Israel: (speaking through interpreter) I made a mistake, but I did not commit a crime. In future I must put around me people I can trust.
TRISTANA MOORE: But the whole affair has played into the hands of the opposition Labor Party whose leader, Shimon Peres, called for Mr. Netanyahu to step down, despite being cleared by the state prosecutors. Shimon Peres demanded that fresh elections be held as the accusations raised in the report were so strong. He said it was the public's right to defy it, and the prime minister's fate.
The Israeli newspapers were calling this judgment day, the closest Israel has got to Watergate-style scandal. The affair centered on the appointment in January of Rani Bar-On as attorney general. He was put in place it was claimed as part of a deal with the leader of the Shas Party, Aryeh Deri. Deri was on trial for corruption and offered to back Netanyahu so that charges against him could be lessened.
Now Mr. Netanyahu's political survival depends on the support of his coalition partners. The opposition Labor Party may also decide to bring charges in the high court sometime in the near future.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, explain how the police could be indicting Aryeh Deri, the man accused of generating all of this, putting the pressure on to have this deal happen, and yet not indicting Netanyahu, who supposedly carried it out. What were the missing pieces?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, Mr. Deri was accused by the state prosecutors of actually threatening--saying, if you don't take my man as attorney general, I'm going to bring down this government, and he wouldn't vote for the Hebron deal, which was the one big movement forward in the peace process, so they said he was definitely trying to extort a decision for personal gain, so he could get this sweetheart deal. But there's no evidence that Mr. Netanyahu when agreeing to name Mr. Bar-On actually had agreed to such a plea bargain at all. So what was really missing here was a smoking gun whereby Mr. Netanyahu will have admitted to say, I took Bar-On because we had this deal to do a plea bargain. But that part of the puzzle was missing.
MARGARET WARNER: Or someone who would say, I took this deal to the prime minister. That was also missing?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right. And, therefore, some of his aides are still under active investigation. That was one of the findings of the state prosecutors; they would continue to investigate. The only one who they said they would press charges against was Mr. Deri, who's already facing a corruption trial. And he was the one who was considered to have triggered this whole thing by making the initial threat to bring down the government.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, the prime minister is treating this decision as an exoneration. From the legal point of view, under Israeli law is it that?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Under the legal point of view there is--he looks like he's in the free because the opposition members are going to go forward in the Supreme Court and petition that the state prosecutor's ruling be overruled essentially. But it's unclear if the Supreme Court will overrule their own prosecutors. That's considered very slim. From a strictly legal point of view, it looks like Mr. Netanyahu is in--is in the free right now.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in addressing this over the weekend blamed the charges and all of this on what he called the political elite, so he said, we're out to destroy him and his government. Who is he talking about?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: He basically sees four different establishments--in his words--working to overthrow him. He looks at the business community. He looks at military leaders, he looks at the legal establishment, and he looks at the media. And he's basically saying, I'm an outsider; all these four elites, these four elite groups were pro-Labor. And they're not just pro-Labor. Where he may be right technically--
MARGARET WARNER: Labor being the opposition party.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I'm sorry. Being supportive of the opposition party. But he takes it a step further and says, no, it's just that they were for them in the election. But they are trying to bring me down. And that is a charge--what I would call the politics of resentment that I think resonates with some of Mr. Netanyahu's own voters who were blue collar, Safartic, leaning Jews of North African origin, who have traditionally felt left out, along with other immigrants, and they feel that charge is something they could identify with, so it could be it's a winning charge. I just feel it's one that is going to be inevitably divisive and bring a lot of resentment to the body politic.
MARGARET WARNER: But now it was the police investigators who had actually recommended that he be indicted. He's saying that the police are politicized?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Some of his people are saying, yes, that the police leaked because they are somehow politicized. I think it should be pointed out that it was Mr. Netanyahu who actually made the police inquiry after a lot of public pressure. But he started this ball rolling, so people are wondering how that exactly fits. But his people around him have certainly made that charge. I don't think that he personally has made that charge, but all of his top assistants have.
MARGARET WARNER: So what do you think is going to be the domestic political fallout from this in terms of his own standing and his coalition and his alliances?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: It seems that legally he's in the clear as it stands now, and politically the one group that can really bring him down were some of his junior coalition partners, and they seem to be right now taking the position that if there are improved procedures to the future nominees and if the justice minister is replaced and there is some sort of a minor cabinet reshuffle, then they believe that they could go along with this government, so both in terms of the legal standing and in a political sense it seems that Mr. Netanyahu's coalition remains intact.
MARGARET WARNER: Now based on a lot of commentary in the American papers this morning that this is going to make Mr. Netanyahu more dependent than ever on the "far right party," do you agree with that assessment?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think that's true because the third aspect of this is that it seems to dash what was the most hopeful sign of a broad-based political coalition involving the two big parties, Mr. Netanyahu's Likud Party and Labor's--and the Labor Party. And there's been a lot of speculation about that. But even though he's legally clear and he might be politically clear, there's still somewhat of an ethical cloud that is kind of lingering over his government. And that makes it much harder for the Labor Party to join at this time. And, therefore, it seems that Mr. Netanyahu's--soldiers on--seems to be more reliant on some more right wing elements of his party, and makes it much harder for the Middle East peace process.
MARGARET WARNER: And why does it make it harder for the peace process?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, because Mr. Netanyahu's coalition barely scraped through the first pullback of the West Bank, which was mandated under the Oslo Accord, after it did do Hebron, and in Mr. Netanyahu's words--
MARGARET WARNER: That was the withdrawal from the city of Hebron that you referred to earlier.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Exactly. And for Mr. Netanyahu he has come a long way. But it's unclear that the narrow margin by which he secured the progress of the peace process he did will be sufficient to deal with the hard--what I call the cores issues that are coming up. I mean, we've kicked the can down the road on the core issues, and now we're at the end of the road. And now some tough decisions have to be made. And it seems that the compromises can only be struck if there's a broad-based coalition in Israel to take those tough decisions. Mr. Peres, who used to be the head of Labor and was Mr. Netanyahu's predecessor, he seemed willing to join the coalition. But now that there's this kind of ethical cloud, he is now calling for Mr. Netanyahu's resignation, so the hopes of a broad-based coalition that's going to be able to take the tough choice in the peace process, that seems to have been diminished for now. Maybe within a few months when this scandal fades a bit, it'll resurface, but, for now, the hopes of a broad-based government have been reduced, and Mr. Netanyahu is going to have to rely on more of his right-wing allies to hang--to keep this coalition intact.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you very much, David.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: My pleasure.