Pride takes Netanyahu close to his downfall

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The Independent Online
It is the end of a battle. Later today Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, will learn if he is to be put on trial for allowing suspected criminals a decisive say in the appointment of Israel's chief prosecutor. But even if he is not indicted, he has clearly failed in his attempt to take over the established agencies of government.

Eleven months ago, when he won the election, Mr Netanyahu said he wanted to break the grip of the Labour-leaning Israeli establishment. He wanted his own men at the top of the army, police, secret service, judiciary and media. Mr Netanyahu's downfall is as much to do with this hard-fought battle for power in Israel as it has with any illegal acts he may have committed.

Senior officials in the State Attorney's office were divided yesterday on their response to the 995-page police report, compiled over three months, which recommends that Mr Netanyahu and three of his associates should be indicted. Edna Arbel, the State Attorney, who makes the final decision on whether or not to prosecute the Prime Minister, is reported to believe that she does not have enough evidence to convict him. But if she issues a damning report on his actions during the so-called "Bar-On affair" it may damage his government beyond repair.

Direct evidence of Mr Netanyahu's role in the scandal is flimsy. But there has never been much doubt about what the Prime Minister was trying to do when, in January, he appointed as attorney general Roni Bar-On, the chairman of the right-wing Betar football club in Jerusalem. (In Israel political allegiances percolate everywhere, including the soccer field.)

The attorney general has great influence. He is the chief prosecutor and legal adviser to the government. The only conceivable reason for Mr Netanyahu choosing Mr Bar-On, a small-time lawyer and a long-time member of the right-wing Likud party, was so that he would go easy on members and friends of the government suspected of criminal offences.

The most important of these was Aryeh Deri, the leader of Shas, a religious party which is part of Mr Netanyahu's coalition. The 37-year-old politician, with a soft smile and a pipe permanently in his mouth, once might have hoped to be prime minister himself. But in 1993 he was forced to step down as Interior Minister, and is on trial accused of fraud and accepting bribes. As his case began to draw to an end he allegedly tried to save himself from conviction by looking for a sympathetic attorney general, willing to offer him a plea bargain or an amnesty on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Israeli independence next year.

Michael Ben-Yair, the previous highly regarded attorney general, resigned last December under heavy government pressure. He had forced Mr Netanyahu's Justice Minister out of office. He had indicted the right-wing mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, for malpractice in an election. He was also known to oppose an amnesty. He said last week that the criticism of himself and the judicial authorities by high-ranking suspects had "one clear and cynical intention: to buy themselves immunity from the enforcement of the law".

Mr Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman, the director general of his office, and Tzahi Hanegbi, the Justice Minister, are accused by the police of doing a deal with Mr Deri, whereby Mr Bar-On was named attorney general in return for Shas party support. But the government found that it had gone too far. The judiciary and the legal profession, rising powers in Israel, objected so furiously to Mr Bar-On that he resigned within 24 hours.

There the matter might have rested, but on 22 January Ayalah Hasson, a TV reporter on Israel's state-owned Channel 1, said in a brief item that Mr Deri had threatened to block the US-brokered agreement with the Palestinians on Hebron, unless Mr Bar-On was appointed. The report dramatised the scandal and gave it a name: the "Bar-On for Hebron" affair. It was no longer a seedy backroom deal, but was affecting international politics.

Mr Netanyahu called the report "gibberish" and agreed to a police investigation. But it is now clear that he did not take the affair seriously enough, just as Richard Nixon at first underestimated Watergate, the inevitable analogy made by the press.

Mr Netanyahu, like President Nixon, portrayed himself as the man who would break the grip of the establishment. He stopped senior officers negotiating with the Palestinians. He ignored the advice of the security services. He attacked state television and the press. In his arrogance, the Prime Minister underestimated the reaction to these attacks by his enemies in the press, bureaucracy and his own cabinet.

If Mr Netanyahu proves too isolated to survive, he may reflect that other Israeli politicians have come back after worse scandals. But having portrayed himself as like no other politician, he may find it less easy to return.