Israel is on tenterhooks since 13 February, when police officially recommended that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu be indicted on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust.
In July last year, police interrogated Netanyahu in connection with two corruption probes. The first, called “Case 1000”, involves claims that he and his family members regularly received gifts from Australian billionaire James Packer and Israeli billionaire and Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan.
The gifts, said to include expensive cigars, bottles of pink champagne and jewellery, are estimated to be worth more than $280,000. The second probe — “Case 2000” — is into a deal that Netanyahu allegedly struck with Arnon Moses, publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest selling newspaper. In exchange for favourable news, the prime minister would help curtail the distribution of that newspaper’s foremost competitor, Israel Today, through regulatory and other channels.
Several days after the police recommended the Israeli prime minister’s indictment in these two cases, they arrested business tycoon Shaul Elovitch, a family friend of the Netanyahus and owner of the Eurocom Group, which owns the controlling share of Israel’s largest telecom company Bezeq. Elovitch’s wife and son, as well as Bezeq CEO Stella Handler, former Netanyahu family spokesman Nir Hefetz and former director-general of the Ministry of Communications Shlomo Filber, were also arrested. Hefetz and Filber are also close friends of the Netanyahus.
The arrests were made in connection with a new investigation: “Case 4000”. According to the Hebrew press, Elovitch and other Bezeq officials offered Netanyahu and his wife Sarah favourable coverage in the Walla news site in exchange for policies, enacted through the Ministry of Communications, that could be worth millions of dollars for Elovitch and that could potentially conflict with the national interest.
The Israeli opposition has called on Netanyahu to resign, which the prime minister apparently has no intent to do. This puts his fate in the hands of his coalition partners, primarily Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, head of the Kulanu Party, and Naftali Bennet, leader of the rightwing Jewish Home.
Under Israeli law, a prime minister is not obliged to resign even if facing criminal charges, but they could pull out of the coalition. So far, however, they have chosen to wait until the attorney general delivers a decision on the matter. But it could take weeks or even months before Avichai Mandelblit decides whether or not to hand down an indictment.
According to opinion polls, the majority of the Israeli public disapproves of Netanyahu’s behaviour but, from a pragmatic standpoint, they cannot see a better alternative to steer the country at this difficult political and military juncture.
Still, the situation appears to be getting worse for the prime minister. Late last week, Shlomo Filber struck a deal with the public prosecution and turned state’s witness in “Case 4000”, the graft probe involving an alleged deal struck between Netanyahu and the media and communications moguls at the time when Filber headed the Communications Ministry.
According to the news report, in exchange for turning state’s witness, Filber would not have to serve a prison sentence, perform community service or pay a fine. Filter was dismissed from the ministry in July last year after news of the Bezeq investigation broke.
Netanyahu has shrugged off the police recommendation and protested his innocence. In a televised address, the 68-year-old prime minister said, “I am telling you, these things will end with nothing. These recommendations have no place in our democratic rule.” He vowed that his government would serve its full term and added that he was certain he would win the voters’ confidence in the next general elections in November 2019.
He reiterated his position in a meeting in Tel Aviv with municipal authorities. “I want to reassure you, the coalition is stable. No one, not I, not anyone else, has plans to go to an election,” he said. “We will continue to work with you in the service of the citizens of the State of Israel until the end of the term of the current government.”
This is hardly the first time that Netanyahu has come under the glare of suspicion for corruption. In fact, he referred to the precedents in the process of dismissing the most recent police recommendation. “Over the years, I have been the subject of at least 15 enquiries and investigations. Some have ended with thunderous police recommendations like those of tonight. All of those attempts resulted in nothing, and this time again they will come to nothing.”
Netanyahu has been in power continuously since 2009. He served his first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999. Given the absence of a strong competitor, he stands to beat Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, as the longest serving prime minister if he is re-elected to another term in November 2019.
Netanyahu is not the first Israeli leader to face criminal charges. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (2006-2009) was found guilty on charges of betrayal of trust and accepting bribes in 2014. After serving a year and four months in prison, he was released in July 2017.
Ariel Sharon was also questioned during his tenure in connection with allegations that he had received bribes and engaged in illicit fundraising activities during his electoral campaign.
Political analysts suggest that Netanyahu holds three strong cards that will help him hold out. One is that none of his coalition partners feel it in their interest to pull out of the coalition and go to early elections.
In fact, they see it to their advantage to remain in the coalition at a time when a weakened Netanyahu will make it easier for them to advance their parties’ political, economic and, above all, settlement expansion and Judaicisation agendas.
The second card is the lack of a strong competitor. As analysts pointed out, voters do not feel that any of Netanyahu’s rivals has what it takes to fill his shoes in the prime minister’s office.
The third card is the time factor. Some observers predict that the attorney general will not reach a decision on whether or not to deliver an indictment before the beginning of 2019 and, even then, Netanyahu would not be forced to resign. Nor would his resignation have much meaning at that point since the forthcoming elections are in November 2019.
Palestinian political analyst Akram Atallah told Al-Ahram Weekly that Israeli society has shifted to the right and that the time of the Israeli left and centre is over. Netanyahu’s government mirrors that reality.
Therefore, if Netanyahu goes, the Likud establishment would elect someone as extreme as Netanyahu, if not more so, to lead the party. To the Likud rank and file, Netanyahu is a “dove” compared to fellow Likudists Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Likud leader Gideon Saar.
The rightward shift is reflected in opinion polls. Atallah pointed out that this was the first time in Israel’s history that a corrupt prime minister has received such a high level of support from within his coalition and from the general public.
“The people of Israel have come to prefer a corrupt leader who is dedicated to the settler drive over the principles of transparency and integrity,” he said.
In an opinion poll conducted the day after the police announced their recommendation to judicial officials to formally charge the prime minister with corruption, respondents gave Netanyahu and his party a huge lead when asked how they would vote in the next elections.
Two opinion polls conducted by Israeli television Channel 2 and Channel 10 concluded that the police recommendation did not detract from Netanyahu’s and his party’s popularity. In fact, their popularity increased in certain areas. According to the Channel 10 poll, voters would give the Likud 27 seats in the next Knesset. In the Channel 2 poll, they gave the party 26 seats.
Atallah predicts that unless some dramatic development takes place in the ruling coalition, Netanyahu will complete his term until the next elections. He noted that Olmert resigned after his coalition partner Ehud Barak stipulated that as a condition in order for the coalition to continue.
However, Atallah said, such pressures from coalition partners are not a factor so far in this case, especially given the flagrantly opportunistic nature of the current coalition. It would be sufficient for one of the coalition partners (apart from Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party) to withdraw in order to topple the government.
Another option, according to Atallah, is for anti-Netanyahu protests to sweep the streets. In recent months, Tel Aviv has seen Saturday night demonstrations staged by opposition forces calling on the prime minister to step down. But the demonstrations so far are not large enough to constitute a threat to the prime minister.
As for a third force that might lead Netanyahu to resign, in Atallah’s opinion that would be the prime minister’s pragmatism and instinct of self-preservation. If he begins to feel that the matter is very serious and that he would definitely be facing a prison sentence, he would think it in his interests to enter into negotiations with the prosecution in the hope of striking a deal that would reward him with a reduced sentence or similar benefits.
He would be in a stronger position if he was the one to initiate the bargaining.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly