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Bibi Toasts His Fortune

Beaten and bruised, Bibi bounces back

Illustration: Sivan Schwam


After a period of relative calm with muted, nonviolent protests every Motzaei Shabbos, the protesters returned to Israel’s streets this week with the renewal of the reform legislation. It came as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, without consulting or even informing his coalition allies ahead of time, outlined the new parameters of the reform in an interview to the Wall Street Journal.

Bibi made it clear that the government would focus on eliminating the reasonability argument, a murky mechanism the High Court has used to strike down government appointments and legislation. Netanyahu unceremoniously discarded the all-important override clause, laying down the facts to his coalition allies.

“I’ve shown before that I always have a trick up my sleeve,” Netanyahu once told me. Until about two weeks ago, it seemed the trickster had finally been tricked. If there was something Netanyahu lost during the first half year of his sixth term, it was the element of surprise.

Ever since the election results were announced, the man who was always one move ahead of his rivals has found himself outmaneuvered at every turn. First by his right-wing allies, who squeezed him dry in the coalition agreements; then by his closest confidant, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who forced him into the judicial reform; and lastly by the leaders of the protest movement.

Recently, Netanyahu has reclaimed the initiative, and the polls — which for months saw him lag his closest rival Benny Gantz — have rewarded him as a result.

The military operation in Jenin, a surgical operation with clear if limited goals, reflected that well. It wasn’t only Hamas that Netanyahu surprised by embarking on the “Bayit V’Gan” operation, but also his allies at home.

Just two days before the operation, former Israeli ambassador to the UN Danny Danon, who’s been grumbling from the sidelines after failing to secure a government post, savaged Netanyahu for his weak response to the terrorism in Judea and Samaria. Bibi didn’t turn the other cheek, reminding Danon that he isn’t in the cabinet and has no idea what’s going on. The incident reminded some of Bibi’s invitation to Ben Gvir to leave the government if he didn’t approve of its policies on the eve of the Shield and Arrow operation.

And the chareidim were taken by surprise when Netanyahu unilaterally scrapped the override clause, which they need to enable yeshivah students to remain at their shtenders. Bibi has relished surprising the rest of his allies on security matters. Bibi is handling security from his kitchen cabinet, and surprise is on the menu every meal.


They say that politics is personality. And there’s no question that in Bibi’s case, his renewed confidence can be chalked up to recent developments in his trial. Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan’s testimony, broadcast in the Jerusalem District Court from a hotel in Brighton, England, was supposed to be the prosecution’s big moment.

Israelis haven’t forgotten American businessman Morris Talansky’s testimony in former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s trial, in which he recalled delivering cash-stuffed envelopes to Olmert during his time as mayor of Jerusalem. Talansky’s testimony shredded Olmert’s public image and led to his resignation. Milchan’s testimony in the Netanyahu trial was supposed to reveal Netanyahu as a millionaire with the mindset of a schnorrer, a prime minister who traded his influence for free cigars, luxury shirts, jewelry, and champagne.

That wasn’t the outcome. Even before Milchan’s testimony began, the panel of judges in the trial took a sledgehammer to the case by advising the prosecution to drop the bribery charge in Case 4000 – the most serious of the cases in Bibi’s trial.

Then came the shocking admission from former police commissioner Roni Alsheikh, under whose term the investigations were started. For many, Alsheikh’s admission that he expected the indictment to provoke Netanyahu’s resignation confirmed the belief that the police concocted the investigations to force Netanyahu to step down without a trial.

But the coup de grâce came from the witness himself, who, after years of estrangement, handed the Netanyahus his sweetest gift yet. Under cross-examination from Netanyahu’s defense team, Milchan changed his account entirely. Things went so badly that the prosecution team had to cross-examine their own witness, and even requested that only his testimony to the police be used as evidence. At times, it seemed that Milchan was a witness for the defense rather than for the prosecution.


Netanyahu made a point of showing up in the Jerusalem District Court for the broadcasts of Milchan’s testimony. His wife, Sarah, traveled to Brighton to be able to look Milchan in the eyes, day after day.

Mrs. Netanyahu arrived in the UK a week before Milchan’s testimony commenced, not to prepare with her defense team, but to attend the wedding of real estate magnate Zak Gertler’s son Rafael.

Gertler is Netanyahu’s new favorite multimillionaire, the owner of the Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv, where Bibi spent a tense election night last November.

Even Milchan, the Hollywood producer, couldn’t have imagined so surreal a scene. Rafael Gertler’s sheva brachos was celebrated in Brighton, with none other than Arnon Milchan himself as the panim chadashos.

Milchan, for his part, gave his old friends ample cause for celebration. Some of his statements did lead the defense to break a sweat, including his statement that “for me, it didn’t mean anything. For Bibi and Sarah, it was the entire world.”

Like that single moment of unpleasantness, the few remarks that didn’t bolster the defense’s case were vastly outweighed by the rest of his testimony, which confirmed Netanyahu’s account on almost every essential point. Milchan confirmed that the Netanyahus requested but never demanded “dwarves” (shirts), “roses” (champagne), or “leaves” (cigars), and that throughout their friendship, Bibi not only never exerted his influence in his favor, but even did the opposite when he felt it was in the interests of the state. And like an unforgiving diet, Milchan’s testimony also cut down the amount of the gifts.

Although it’s too early to say how the trial will end, based on the hints dropped by the judges, it seems they’ll try to steer the two sides toward a plea bargain.

The latest showdown between the defense and the prosecution, however — which will certainly affect the terms of any future deal — only strengthened Bibi’s hand. That’s what a prime minister looks like who’s regained the element of surprise, on every front.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 969)

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