Israeli police on Sunday recommended Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted on bribery and fraud charges, citing evidence that he exchanged regulatory favors for positive news coverage. It is the third time this year that police formally informed judicial authorities that Netanyahu should face corruption charges, and it could be the most damaging.
The recommendation is a significant setback for Netanyahu, who presides over a fragile coalition government with a majority of one in Israel’s parliament with an election year looming.
Police delivered a formal referral to Israel’s attorney general — a Netanyahu appointee who must decide whether to accept the recommendations -- asserting they have sufficient evidence to charge Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, with bribery, fraud, breach of trust and obstruction of justice.
The case encompasses the Netanyahus’ convoluted relations with telecom giant Bezeq, controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch and his wife, Iris, whom the police also recommend charging, and with Walla, the popular news website the company owns.
Netanyahu denied all the charges in a tweet in which he diminished the significance of the case and repeated his mantra that “nothing will be found because there’s nothing there.”
“The police recommendations against my wife and me surprise no one,” he wrote, calling them a “setup” lacking any legal weight and questioning the timing.
Earlier this year, police recommended that Netanyahu be prosecuted in two unrelated corruption cases. One revolved around gifts Netanyahu and his family are alleged to have received in exchange for political favors. In the other, another media-related case, Netanyahu stands accused of exchanging advantageous legislation for positive coverage in the country’s leading tabloid.
In the newest case, a lengthy statement issued jointly by the police and Israel’s Securities Authority lays out suspicions regarding the prime minister’s handling of the communications ministry, which he oversaw between 2014 and 2017 in addition to his roles as head of government and foreign minister.
Netanyahu is accused of intervening to help Bezeq secure a lucrative deal. In exchange, police allege, media mogul Elovitch, a longtime friend of the Netanyahus, ordered Walla to post coverage flattering to the Netanyahu family.
Police said evidence shows that “Netanyahu and his associates intervened blatantly, sometimes on a daily basis, in content published on the Walla news website, and sought to influence the appointment of senior employees (editors and reporters), through their connection to Shaul and Iris Elovitch.”
Atty. Gen. Avichai Mandelblit is expected to amalgamate the three police files against Netanyahu and determine whether the accusations merit indictment in a single decision.
The process may take several months, opening a window for Netanyahu to run for reelection and potentially win an unprecedented fifth term as prime minister while facing prosecution, a prospect that Netanyahu and his allies have discussed publicly but has never been tested in Israeli courts.
“Victory in a coming election would embolden Netanyahu to stay in office even if indicted,” said Anshel Pfeffer, Netanyahu’s biographer, and it could dissuade any of his coalition partners tempted to break ranks despite the prime minister’s steady showing in recent polls.
“The constitutional crisis of a prime minister serving under indictment now looks like a distinct possibility,” Pfeffer said.
Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics for a decade, and he remains a daunting figure able to manipulate Israel’s fractured and polarized electoral arena, where his Likud party remains at the top of recent surveys of Israeli voters.
In recent polls, his party has consistently been projected to maintain or improve upon the 30 seats it holds in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, among up to 10 parties with realistic chances of winning seats.
But Netanyahu’s political supremacy does not reach much beyond a core base of supporters, and his authority was severely tested last month when Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman abruptly quit the coalition, leaving Netanyahu’s government depending on a single vote to survive.
The opposition reacted swiftly, calling time on Netanyahu’s almost decade-long rule.
Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay tweeted: “A prime minister with so many corruption cases around him cannot continue on the job and must resign. Any man driven by a sick obsession with what will be said about him in the media can't lead the state of Israel.”
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni said, “Netanyahu has to go before he destroys law enforcement bodies to save his own skin.”
In recent days, both Netanyahu and the attorney general’s office have appeared to gird themselves for battle, as each side announced it was reinforcing its team with new experts.
The attorney general added to his team three experts in financial crimes who are expected to act as devil’s advocates in internal deliberations. Netanyahu, whose chief lawyer died last month, added a team of three including a former judge and a defense attorney who previously represented former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Olmert was released from prison last year after serving 16 months out of a 27-month term for corruption.
Netanyahu says the investigations against him constitute “a witch hunt orchestrated by the left-wing media.”
Sara Netanyahu is being tried on fraud and breach of trust charges following accusations that she improperly spent about $100,000 of public funds to pay for celebrity chefs catering private meals that were documented as state events.
With two of the prime minister’s closest aides flipping to provide testimony to police investigators, the Bezeq case could prove particularly difficult for Netanyahu to successfully contest.
Shlomo Filber, the man Netanyahu personally appointed to serve as director general of the communications ministry, is said to have detailed the prime minister’s attempts to overrule regulations in Bezeq’s favor. Nir Hefetz, the Netanyahu family’s longtime spin doctor who was accused of transmitting Netanyahu’s demands to Walla editors, holds years’ worth of personal confidences.
In a recent expose on Israel’s Channel 10 News, Walla editors and journalists detailed pressures they faced to distort coverage in the Netanyahus’ favor, leading the prime minister to counter that “the attempt to turn basic public relations into part of a bribery deal is ridiculous.”
Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.