Less than one week after Israeli police recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted on several corruption charges, a new legal minefield has opened up beneath his feet.
Seven Israelis were arrested on Sunday in what the police call “Case 4000,” a new investigation in which members of Netanyahu’s innermost circle are suspected of intervening with regulators to help the Bezeq group, an Israeli communications giant then run by a close friend of the prime minister, in exchange for favorable coverage of Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, on a news portal owned by the company.
Though Netanayhu has not been named as a suspect in the case, numerous Israeli news outlets reported on Sunday that he is expected to be questioned “under caution,” a term used for suspects in criminal cases.
The names of those arrested were not officially announced. But for about an hour before the imposition of a gag order on all details of the investigation, the Haaretz news website reported that they included Nir Hefetz, a close friend of the Netanyahus and the prime minister’s former communications director, and Shlomo Filber, a Netanyahu associate who served as director general of the Communications Ministry.
Sunday’s revelations came only five days after the police announced their recommendation, presented to the attorney general, that Netanyahu be indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two unrelated cases in which Netanyahu is alleged to have inappropriately given associates political favors.
From Germany, where Netanyahu was attending the annual Munich Security Conference, he said the arrests of members of his close circle revealed “yet another futile investigation, a contrived bubble that will burst.”
Netanyahu has been in Germany since Thursday, holding meetings with world leaders and acting outwardly as if nothing is amiss.
He addressed the plenum on Sunday. Brandishing the large shard of what he said was an Iranian drone downed Feb. 10 by the Israeli air force, he said that “Israel will not allow the Iranian regime to put a noose of terror around our neck.”
The drone’s incursion into Israeli skies precipitated an exchange of fire that resulted in the loss of an Israeli F-16 that was downed by a Syrian antiaircraft missile. It was the first loss of an Israeli fighter jet since 1982.
Speaking directly to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was in the audience, Netanyahu asked, “Do you recognize it? You should. It’s yours. Don’t test us.”
Speaking a few hours later, Zarif ridiculed what he called Netanyahu’s “cartoonish circus.”
Such an international venue is familiar ground for the Israeli leader, who has dominated Israeli politics for the last decade.
Tal Schneider, the political analyst for the Israeli financial daily Globes, who accompanied Netanyahu to Munich, said the prime minister “appeared unruffled, projecting that business is as usual, carrying on with scheduled meetings.”
As he departed from Munich, Netanyahu refused to answer questions from Israeli reporters about the criminal investigations that surround him.
Israelis, however, appear to be asking the same questions. Three polls published before the weekend show many Israelis believe the police version of events rather than that of Netanyahu, who claims he is the victim of a political witch hunt.
A poll that aired on television channel Reshet said 49% of Hebrew-speaking Israelis believe Netanyahu acted improperly. Twenty-five percent accept Netanyahu’s claims of innocence and the remaining 26% do not know what to believe.
A poll by Channel 2 showed that 45% of Israelis believe Netanyahu should resign even before the attorney general decides whether to indict, versus 40% who said he should not.
The police recommendations were the product of a yearlong investigation and were presented Tuesday to Atty. Gen. Avichai Mandelblit, the nation’s chief prosecutor, who will have to decide whether to indict Netanyahu.
Israel feels increasingly alone as it confronts a difficult dilemma on its northern border: to allow Iran to gain a permanent foothold just across its border with Syria, or to go to war to prevent that from happening.
The White House took more than a full day before reacting to the first incident of Iranian-Israeli military engagement before releasing a statement reaffirming Israel’s right to defend itself.
Other strains are becoming evident in the usually strong relationship between Netanyahu and President Trump, including a spat last week in which Netanyahu told political allies that “for some time now I’ve been talking about [plans to annex areas of the occupied West Bank] with the Americans,” an assertion that White House spokesman Josh Raffel rapidly declared “false.”
“The United States and Israel have never discussed such a proposal, and the president’s focus remains squarely on his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative,” Raffel said in a prepared statement.
On Friday, however, dismissing any concerns relating to Netanyahu’s possible indictment, the White House announced it would be hosting Israel’s embattled prime minister for meetings with Trump on March 5.
“Netanyahu will keep meeting other leaders, he’ll keep on acting as if everything is normal as long as he can,” Meir Sheetrit, a former minister from Netanyahu’s political party, Likud, said in an interview. “But we know what direction this is going in: political defeat.”
“This is untenable in the long term,” Sheetrit added. “Netanyahu and the Likud are disconnected from the people, floating along in a world in which their corruption doesn’t matter. But it will, and this won’t take long to come.”
Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.