Kafe Knesset for July 13
Dropping like flies: The walls seem to be closing in on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as several of his closest allies have been implicated in corruption scandals. Yesterday was a particularly rough day for the Prime Minister. Communications Ministry Director-General Shlomo “Momo” Filber was questioned on suspicion of security crimes and other ethical violations in the Bezek telecom fraud cased. Today, Filber was placed under house arrest by the Tel Aviv Magistrates Court. Also yesterday, the State Comptroller released a report criticizing the manner in which the Communications Ministry was run under Netanyahu’s leadership. The Comptroller’s report accused Netanyahu of not reporting all of his conflicts of interest, as he is close with Bezek controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch. The Comptroller said Netanyahu put Bezek’s interests ahead of the public interest. Netanyahu is not thought to be a suspect in the corruption case revolving around the purchase of submarines from Germany, but his personal lawyer and cousin David Shimron is a prime suspect and he was instructed not to contact the premier.
Netanyahu, for his part, says this is all fake news,100% not true. But for now his friends are dropping like flies and he needs some PR help, ASAP. He gathered Likud ministers and MKs asking them to “defend the truth in light of the orchestrated smear campaign in the media, meant to bring down” the prime minister. Bibi instructed his colleagues that “the best answer to the false campaign is to tell the truth in a clear voice.” The messages Likudniks were asked to disseminate is that Bibi is not a suspect in the submarine case (true), and that Netanyahu did not make any controversial decisions benefiting Bezek that could have resulted from a conflict of interest (debatable, since Filber certainly did, and Bibi was Filber’s boss at the time).
Likud MKs immediately started sending out messages with the talking points in them, but some defenders were more effective than others. David “Dudu” Amsalem talked about the investigations on Army Radio today with host Nitzan Horowitz. Horowitz is a former Meretz MK and read Amsalem a quote that suggested that a prime minister who is busy with investigations will be too concerned with his survival to work for the public and should resign. Horowitz asked Amsalem what he thinks of that, and Amsalem shrugged it off, saying that some leftist must have said it. Turns out, it was a direct quote from Netanyahu in 2008 about Ehud Olmert. Ooooops!
Peace talks in the fall: While Netanyahu is busy with all of his scandals, the US administration is continuing its efforts to renew an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The peace process could serve as Bibi’s perfect savior if the talks eventually come to fruition. Kafe Knesset has learned that the POTUS special envoy, Jason Greenblatt, who is on his sixth visit to the region this week, said in some of his meetings that the plan and goal is to renew the process in the fall. Meanwhile, as Greenblatt continues his shuttle diplomacy between BB and Abbas (yesterday he met the PM and he is meeting Abbas today), Greenblatt decided it is time to show off some of his progress in the economic and civil realm.
This morning, Greenblatt, accompanied by Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and the Palestinian water authority chief Mazen Ghuneim, called a press conference to announce a breakthrough on a new Israeli-Palestinian water agreement, which will merge the Palestinians into the grandiose Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal project and will include the sale of 33 million cubic meters of water to the Palestinian Authority. This is the second agreement signed this week between Israel and the Palestinians, after the historic ceremony in Jenin in which Energy Minister Steinitz and PA PM Rami Hamdallah, inked a new power and electricity deal between the sides. Yesterday, Economy Minister Eli Cohen met with his Palestinian counterpart Abeer Odeh for the first ministerial level meeting in ages to discuss trade and economy relations. Next week, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is set to meet Hamdallah for the second time in recent weeks.
Greenblatt has reiterated time and again that Palestinian economic prosperity is high on the US agenda and is crucial for building trust between the sides. He refused to take any questions about the process this morning in the special press conference convened today, but he did stress that the water agreement is “an example of what can be achieved when the sides work together” and reminded that “President Trump has clarified that promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace is one of his highest priorities.”
Greenblatt brushed off all attempts to ask questions about the political process, and both Hanegbi and Ghuneim followed suit and agreed only to answer questions about the water agreement itself. However, when Kafe Knesset took the microphone, and asked both sides what lessons could be learned from the successful dialogue on water to promote the political process between Netanyahu and Abbas, Hanegbi did give “my dear friend Jason” one piece of advice: “The discrete nature of the negotiations and contacts is one of the secrets of our success. It ensures that it is more serious and that we are not dragged into other issues.”
Hanegbi is not the only one who had some tips for Greenblatt. Greenblatt will be meeting representatives of the Middle East Quartet today – including the Russian, UN and EU envoys – to discuss Middle East peace in a group setting for the first time since the Trump administration took office. Nikolay Mladenov, the UN’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, told Israeli reporters yesterday that in his first meeting with Greenblatt a few months ago, Greenblatt asked for Mladenov’s advice. “I told him to take his time, and not rush into anything. When one comes from the outside, it is important to take the time and understand what is possible and what is doable and understand the political limits on both sides.” Greenblatt met with Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett last night for the second time, so it appears he has been implementing some of the recommendations.