Prisoner swap? It must be an election

There were similar developments in the weeks before each of the past three elections, writes Anshel Pfeffer


Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

February 18, 2021 12:44

The video meetings of Israel’s coronavirus cabinet are notoriously indiscreet. Dozens of ministers, officials and advisors take part and access codes circulate widely. Political journalists eavesdrop easily and the proceedings are routinely live-tweeted. Ministers complain but take the opportunity to grandstand.

On Tuesday afternoon, the cabinet was expecting a summons to yet another meeting on the chaotic exit strategy from the third lockdown. But instead, a small number of them, members of the smaller security cabinet, were told to go immediately to secure locations for a meeting on a much more private network. The military censor instructed the media not to report the details. They were allowed only to disclose that the meeting concerned “a humanitarian matter” and the Russian government.

Rumours circulated like wildfire. Russia controls Syria and at Israel’s request has carried out investigations and searches for the bodies of Israeli soldiers missing since the first Lebanon War in 1982 and even for Israel’s most celebrated spy, Eli Cohen, who was executed in Damascus in 1965.

When the actual details were finally cleared for publication, it turned out to be a less historic case. A women from the strictly-Orthodox town of Modi’in Illit had crossed the border to Syria a few months ago, seemingly for romantic purposes, and got arrested. The Russians are now brokering a prisoner exchange: the formerly Charedi woman in return for two residents of northern Israel who were arrested for Hezbollah espionage and propaganda.

The timing is intriguing, however. In the weeks before each of the past three elections, there were similar developments. Russia located and repatriated from Syria the body of an Israeli MIA, an Israeli tourist imprisoned in Moscow for carrying drugs was released by the Kremlin, and Eli Cohen’s watch was located by Mossad. Surely there was no connection, but each time it happened at a fortuitous moment for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In a radio interview on Wednesday, Mr Netanyahu said that “we are in the middle of secret talks,” but was willing to disclose that “I’m using my personal relationship with President Putin.” Always useful to have a direct line to the Kremlin.

Bibi unsettled, for once 

That was Mr Netanyahu’s third interview in six days. In between elections, months, sometimes years, can pass without the prime minister giving an interview to Israeli media. Then comes the pre-election blitz when it’s almost impossible to switch on a television or radio without seeing or hearing him. But that usually happens in the last few days of the campaign. This time, the media onslaught is taking place five weeks before election day, much earlier than usual.

Likud is stuck in the polls at under thirty Knesset seats. It has lost about twenty percent of its voters from a year ago. Eight weeks after the world beating vaccination roll out began, the centrepiece of Mr Netanyahu’s campaign, it was supposed to have boosted Likud’s polling by now. So the prime minister has had no choice but to invite himself to the studios.

On Monday night, he gave a 32-minute interview to Israel’s most popular news programme on Channel 12. It was a bravura performance, vintage Netanyahu. He easily swatted away chief anchor Yonit Levi’s rapid-fire questions on his government’s handling of the pandemic, giving the fact checkers plenty to work with the next day. But he was caught off guard on one unexpected subject, when he was asked about reports that he had called up one of the key prosecution witnesses in his trial, Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, generous purveyor of Cuban cigars and champagne to the official prime ministerial residence.

He had called Mr Milchan, he admitted, “once or twice.” To wish him “Chag Sameach”. The problem is, the calls were not before any festival and if that had been the intention, why did he need to call him twice?

Yet another police investigation, this time for alleged obstruction of justice, would seem to be the least of Mr Netanyahu’s worries right now. But it was the only moment he seemed genuinely unsettled in the interview.

Inside and outside court

A date for the next hearing in his case has not yet been set by the judges of the Jerusalem District Court and it is unlikely to resume before the election, though that can’t be ruled out.

Mr Milchan is expected to be one of the early witnesses called by the prosecution, but first in line will be Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of Walla!, the website that is at the center of Case 4000, in which Mr Netanyahu is accused of bribery for demanding favourable coverage in return for offering regulatory favours to Walla!’s parent company.

Mr Yeshua’s testimony is supposed to establish the prosecution’s case that Mr Netanyahu’s arrangement went far beyond the normal relationship between a politician and the media.

In recent weeks, anonymous hands have repeatedly amended Mr Yeshua’s Wikipedia entry, ascribing ulterior motives to his recording of conversations he had with the website’s owner. Senior Wikipedia editors took the rare step this week of blocking anyone from updating the entry for the next six months.

The Netanyahu trial is taking place simultaneously in multiple courtrooms.

Lead me to temptation

“Cholent, ray of light immortal! Cholent, daughter of Elysium!” wrote the poet Heinrich Heine.

Traditionally, cholent is a Shabbat lunch dish, after simmering on a low heat for twenty-four hours. But sometimes Shabbat comes early. True cholent fiends try and get an early fix of the dark magic. Thursday night cholent has become something of a tradition, especially for yeshiva students, celebrating the end of a long week of study.

Last Thursday night, Bnei Berak’s city hall, anxious at the slowing rate of vaccination in Israel’s largest Charedi town, held a “Green Night,” in which residents were invited for a jab followed by a steaming bowl of cholent. It was a wild success.

The cholent supplies ran out half way through and new fresh supplies had to be quickly ordered from restaurants around town.

Over three thousand people (in strictly separated locations for men and women) were vaccinated in just five hours.

And then they tucked in.





February 18, 2021 12:44

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