BENJAMIN NETANYAHU has vowed to stay on as prime minister after the police concluded that there was sufficient evidence to indict him for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two separate corruption cases.
“I will continue to lead Israel responsibly and faithfully for as long as you, the citizens of Israel, choose me to lead you,” he said soon after the police published their conclusions on February 13. “I am certain that at the next elections, which will be held on schedule, I will earn your trust again, with God's help.”
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit
, after consultations with the State Attorney’s Office, will now have to decide whether to accept the police recommendations and indict Netanyahu, who is not legally required to resign, even if he is charged. The process is expected to take many months.
In a live television address, Netanyahu said there was “no basis” for the police investigations.
“I feel a deep obligation to continue to lead Israel in a way that will ensure our future,” he said, claiming some 15 probes have been opened against him, in order to “topple him from power.”
“This time things will end without anything. These recommendations have no place in a democratic state.”
The first investigation – dubbed “Case 1000” – centers on gifts Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, received from Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and other wealthy benefactors, including Australian resort owner James Packer. The gifts received by the Netanyahus, such as cigars, champagne and jewelry, were granted for about a decade and reached a total of 1 million shekels.
The police also recommended that Milchan be charged with bribery.
The police rejected Netanyahu’s explanation that it was common for friends to exchange gifts.
“One receives gifts, not demands,” the police stressed, noting that “there was a demand [by the Netanyahus] to receive the goods in a systematic and covert manner.”
Yair Lapid, chair of the opposition Yesh Atid party, and the current leading candidate to replace Netanyahu as prime minister if a center-left coalition was to come to power, will be a witness for the prosecution.
Lapid served as finance minister in the last Netanyahu government and the police recommendations show that Netanyahu tried to extend a bill that would have given Milchan tax benefits worth millions of shekels, and that he discussed this with top Finance Ministry officials.
“I refused to advance what came to be known as ‘The Second Milchan Bill,’ despite the pressures, because I work for the citizens of Israel,” Lapid said. “I work only for them, and not for the interests of any tycoon or any politician, however senior he may be.”
“Case 2000” focuses on conversations Netanyahu held with Arnon Mozes, publisher of the popular Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, discussing an illicit deal by which the paper would soften its anti-Netanyahu line in return for the prime minister using his influence to curtail the activities of Yisrael Hayom, Yedioth’s chief competition – owned by American Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a close ally of Netanyahu at the time.
Police said that Mozes should also face charges.
The offenses for which the police found an evidentiary foundation against the prime minister are severe crimes that carry lengthy jail terms. Bribe taking is an offense punishable by ten years’ imprisonment and anyone convicted of an offense of “fraud and breach of trust” can expect three years in jail.
A few days after the police conclusions were published in Cases 1000 and 2000, senior associates of the prime minister and the Bezeq telecommunications company were detained for questioning by police in another graft probe, dubbed Case 4000, or the Bezeq affair.
Police suspect that the prime minister, when he was also Communications Minister from March 2015 until February 2017, acted to benefit Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch financially in exchange for positive coverage of Netanyahu on Elovitch’s popular news site Walla!
It is likely that the prime minister will also be questioned in connection with Case 4000 but Netanyahu was quick to dismiss the developments as “another false investigation kicked off due to media pressures.”
The police “recommendations” are not binding on the attorney general, who will ultimately decide whether there are grounds to indict Netanyahu, and for which offenses.
There have been cases in the past in which the police concluded that there was an evidentiary foundation to indict a prime minister, but the attorney general thought otherwise.
Netanyahu, now in his fourth term as prime minister, has served as Israeli leader for a total of 12 years. It remains to be seen how he can continue to function as Israeli prime minister, dealing with the fateful security issues such a job entails, while at the same time fighting to clear his name.
The ongoing graft probes have done little to dent Netanyahu’s support among the public and may have even increased his popularity among his right-wing and religious base.
The opposition was quick to demand that Netanyahu step down, immediately after the police recommendations were published.
Zionist Union head Avi Gabbay said that the Netanyahu era was over. He said that the prime minister and his proxies had undermined the police and the institutions of government as no other suspect ever had before.
Former prime minister Ehud Barak called on Netanyahu to declare incapacitation, saying, “These are difficult and sad hours, but it is also a moment of truth and a moment of trial for us all. The Likud and the coalition factions are required to decide who will replace him at this time of trial.”
OPPOSITION POLITICIANS also pointed out that when former prime minister Ehud Olmert faced corruption allegations, Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, was the most prominent voice demanding that he immediately step down as prime minister.
Likud ministers and Knesset members came to the prime minister’s defense, noting that the majority of cases in which the police recommend prosecution do not end up with an indictment.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin from Netanyahu’s Likud party, called the police's recommendations a “contemptible play for a government coup that flies against the will of the electorate.”
The initial indications from the Likud’s coalition partners were that they were sticking with Netanyahu, at least for now, until the Attorney General decides.
None of the coalition partners has an interest in early elections.Naftali Bennett
, head of the Jewish Home, criticized the prime minister for accepting gifts but stressed that he still enjoys the presumption of innocence.
“The prime minister of Israel has to serve as an example to the entire Israeli public, and especially to Israeli youth. Taking gifts in large sums over a long period of time is not living up to this standard,” Bennett said.
The weak link was considered to be the centrist Kulanu party, led by finance minister Moshe Kahlon, but he was quick to issue a statement saying that only the attorney general can decide on issuing an indictment.
For his part, Mandelblit spoke out in support of the quality of the police’s work during the investigation. “These investigations were done according to the book, precisely in the way you would expect of law enforcement authorities handling a case like this – professionally, thoroughly, resourcefully, smartly, with determination to establish the truth,” he told a conference at Tel Aviv University.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said the fate of the prime minister was in the hands of the attorney general.
“Only the attorney general of Israel has the authority to decide whether or not to prosecute the prime minister, and therefore at this time, there is no legal impediment to prevent Benjamin Netanyahu from continuing to serve as prime minister of Israel,” said Plesner. “Notwithstanding this, the facts revealed by the police – which are not contested by the prime minister himself – are deeply troubling. Faced with this reality, all those who consider themselves leaders in our community, including members of the government coalition, must come forth and make their position clear, rejecting such conduct forthrightly. Should such behavior come to be accepted as the norm for public servants, moral decay will spread through our civil service and the public’s trust in the government will plummet.”