JERUSALEM — The Israeli police recommended on Tuesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, casting a pall over the future of a tenacious leader who has become almost synonymous with his country. The announcement instantly raised doubts about his ability to stay in office.
Concluding a yearlong graft investigation, the police recommended that Netanyahu face prosecution in two corruption cases: a gifts-for-favors affair known as Case 1000, and a second scandal, called Case 2000, in which Netanyahu is suspected of back-room dealings with Arnon Mozes, publisher of the popular newspaper Yediot Aharonot, to ensure more favorable coverage.
All told, the police accused Netanyahu of accepting nearly $300,000 in gifts over 10 years.
Netanyahu, addressing the nation live on television shortly before the police released their findings around 9 p.m., made clear that he would not step down. “I feel a deep obligation to continue to lead Israel in a way that will ensure our future,” he said, before embarking on a 12-minute defense of his conduct.
“You know I do everything with only one thing in mind — the good of the country,” he said. “Not for cigars from a friend, not for media coverage, not for anything. Only for the good of the state. Nothing has made me deviate, or will make me deviate, from this sacred mission.”
The police recommendations must now be examined by state prosecutors and the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, a former military prosecutor and onetime Netanyahu aide. The final decision about whether to file formal charges lies with Mandelblit and is subject to a hearing beforehand with Netanyahu’s lawyers. Reaching that threshold alone could easily take months.
According to police, expensive cigars, jewelry and pink champagne flowed into the prime minister’s official Jerusalem residence in quantities sufficient to stock a small cocktail lounge. The generous patrons included Arnon Milchan, the Israeli movie producer, and James Packer, an Australian billionaire.
But it is the favors Netanyahu may have given his wealthy friends in return that could herald his downfall. A formal bribery charge would be by far the most serious outcome, and the most ominous for his political survival.
Netanyahu, who has emerged as one of President Donald Trump’s most ardent allies, is serving his third consecutive term since his election in 2009, and his fourth overall since the 1990s. If he remained in the post through July 2019, he would set a record for total time in office, surpassing that of the state’s founder, David Ben-Gurion.
Netanyahu has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and has vowed to fight on, saying that no police recommendation would prompt his resignation.
His longevity attests to his political agility and to his perfection of a campaigning and governing style in which he casts his political foes and critics as enemies of the broader body politic. Although he has formed previous governing coalitions with those to his left, his current government is often described as the most right-wing and religious in Israel’s history. And he has presided over an increasingly bitter relationship with the Palestinians in the territories Israel has occupied for more than a half-century, whose hopes of soon gaining a state of their own have dwindled as Israeli settlements expand.
But while Netanyahu has prepared the public for this moment for months, and made strenuous efforts to discredit those investigating him, he has not prepared Israel or his government for the possibility that he may be unable to continue to lead. He has designated no successor, and no single member of his own coalition has emerged as ready to step into his shoes. Meanwhile, a centrist opposition, led by Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, has been gaining strength.
In a twist straight out of a political thriller, a key witness against Netanyahu, according to Israeli news reports Tuesday night, turned out to be Lapid himself, who had been Netanyahu’s finance minister in a previous coalition.
According to a police statement about their recommendations, Netanyahu promoted the extension of a 10-year tax exemption to expatriate Israelis returning to the country, “a benefit that has great economic value for Milchan,” who has long worked in Hollywood. But the Finance Ministry blocked this legislation, saying it was against the national interest and fiscally unsound.
The Israeli law enforcement authorities have handled the cases with great caution, wary of the possibility of bringing down a prime minister who might then be proved not guilty in court, not least with Israel facing increasing security threats on its northern and southern frontiers.
But Israel’s constant state of alert has led some critics to argue all the more that a prime minister so focused on fighting his own legal battles cannot be entrusted with fateful decisions of peace and war.
Opposition politicians pounced Tuesday night, demanding that Netanyahu step down, be ousted by his coalition or at least declare himself “incapacitated,” as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak urged on Twitter, calling the police findings “hair-raising.”
“Most of you are honest people,” Stav Shaffir, of the left-leaning Zionist Union party, wrote on Twitter, addressing Netanyahu’s coalition. “If you have a drop of concern for the future, fulfill your obligation. Free Israel from this madness.”
But some coalition members denounced both the investigation and Lapid’s role in it. “In a democracy, a regime is changed in an election and not through the army or police,” the coalition’s chairman, Dudi Amsalem, told Walla News.
And Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, whose center-right Kulanu party holds 10 seats in parliament, giving it the power to sink Netanyahu’s government, signaled just before midnight that he was not prepared to leave the coalition, saying on Facebook that he would wait for the attorney general’s decision on whether to indict Netanyahu.
Projecting aplomb, Netanyahu announced that he would attend a conference of local authorities in Tel Aviv on Wednesday morning.
Netanyahu long ago earned the nickname “the Magician” for his uncanny knack for political endurance, and even his most ardent opponents have been hesitant to write him off.
At what point Netanyahu might be legally required to step down, short of a final conviction, is likely to be a matter of increasingly heated debate, although public opinion and political pressure could in the end play a decisive role.
Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled in the past that government ministers or deputy ministers, once indicted, may not remain in their posts. Whether that principle should also apply to the elected prime minister is an open question.
Netanyahu would be something of a test case as Israel’s first sitting prime minister to be formally charged.
His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, announced his resignation in September 2008, a week after police recommended he be charged with bribery, breach of trust, money laundering and fraudulent receipt of goods. That case involved a U.S.businessman and a travel-expense scandal from Olmert’s days as mayor of Jerusalem and minister of industry and trade.
Olmert was eventually convicted in various cases and served 19 months of a 27-month prison sentence. He was released last year.
Pre-empting the police recommendations, Netanyahu told the public to expect them and did his best to minimize their importance.
“Any fair-minded person will ask themselves how people who say such delusional things about the prime minister can investigate him objectively and make recommendations in his case without bias,” he wrote on a Facebook post last week, accusing the police commissioner, Roni Alsheich, of having an agenda.
In December, Netanyahu told a gathering of his right-wing Likud Party supporters: “The vast majority of police recommendations end in nothing. Over 60 percent of the police recommendations are thrown in the trash. Over 60 percent of the police recommendations don’t get to an indictment.”
Experts have disputed those figures, however, and the prime minister’s opponents have begun quoting from an interview he gave in 2008, at the height of Olmert’s legal troubles, to turn the tables on Netanyahu.
Describing Olmert as “up to his neck in investigations,” Netanyahu said of his political rival at the time: “He does not have a public or moral mandate to determine such fateful matters for the state of Israel when there is the fear, and I have to say it is real and not without basis, that he will make decisions based on his personal interest in political survival and not based on the national interest.”
In some ways, though, Netanyahu has been here before.
During his first term in office, in the late 1990s, the police recommended that he be charged with fraud and breach of trust in a complicated case in which Netanyahu was suspected of acting to appoint an attorney general who would be sympathetic to a minister under investigation for corruption, in return for that minister’s political support. Ultimately, the attorney general closed that case, citing a lack of evidence.
Again, in March 2000, once Netanyahu was out of office, the police recommended that he be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in a case involving his holding on to $100,000 in gifts that were state property and having the state pay for private work on his home. Months later, the attorney general also ordered that case closed.
This time around, the police recruited a state’s witness, Ari Harow, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff and once one of his closest confidants.
The police have also been making headway in other criminal investigations in which Netanyahu has not been named as a subject but that involve associates from his most inner circle. His wife already faces criminal charges of sneaking $100,000 in catered meals into the prime minister’s residence.
But a potentially far more explosive scandal, called Case 3000, involves a $2 billion deal for the purchase of submarines and missile ships from a German supplier. Critics have described that episode as perhaps the biggest corruption case in Israeli history, touching on deep conflicts of interest and national security.
Among those caught up in the shipping investigation are David Shimron, Netanyahu’s personal lawyer and second cousin, and Yitzhak Molcho, Netanyahu’s lifelong friend and close adviser, whom he has sent on his most delicate diplomatic missions since the 1990s. Molcho and Shimron are partners in a law firm as well as brothers-in-law.
Another possible case may be brewing over suspicions of the exchange of benefits in return for favorable media coverage between Netanyahu and a close friend who owns Bezeq, Israel’s telecommunications giant.
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