Jerusalem: Israeli police on Tuesday recommended indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for bribery, opening the way for what could be the biggest challenge yet to the right-wing leader’s political survival.
Against the backdrop of Israeli flags in a televised speech at his residence, a sombre Netanyahu called the allegations baseless and vowed to complete his fourth term in office.
It will be up to Israel’s attorney general to decide whether to file charges, a process that could take weeks if not months.
The recommendations, which police made public on Tuesday night, were at the more serious end of the range of charges that had been expected to be levelled against Netanyahu in two criminal investigations that have gone on for more than a year.
One of the cases, known as Case 1000, alleged the “committing of crimes of bribery, fraud and breach of trust by the prime minister, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu.”
In a detailed statement, police named Arnon Milchan, a Hollywood producer and Israeli citizen, and Australian businessman James Packer, saying that for nearly a decade, from 2007 to 2016, they gave gifts that included champagne, cigars and jewellery to Netanyahu and his family.
In all, the merchandise was worth more than one million shekels ($280,000), the statement said. Any legal proceedings would likely focus on whether political favours were sought or granted.
Netanyahu’s lawyers said the presents were simply tokens of friendship.
The second, Case 2000, also alleged “bribery, fraud and breach of trust by the prime minister” and by the publisher of the biggest-selling Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, Arnon Mozes. The two men, police said, discussed ways of slowing the growth of a rival daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, “through legislation and other means”.
Netanyahu, who has denied wrongdoing, has been questioned several times by police since the start of 2017.
In his television appearance, minutes after police made their recommendations public, Netanyahu, 68, recounted his military service as a commando and said he had never sought personal gain from politics.
“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. “I am certain, I am certain, that the truth will be revealed, and I am certain that at the next elections, which will be held on schedule, I will earn your trust again, with God’s help.”
Israel is next scheduled to go to the polls in late 2019.
“Because I know the truth, I tell you … things will end in nothing,” Netanyahu said.
Israel’s Channel 10 television quoted a lawyer for Milchan as saying that occasional gift-giving was devoid of any business interests.
Milchan or New Regency Productions, a Hollywood movie studio he founded and chairs, have produced more than 100 films, including recent Oscar best picture winners “12 Years a Slave”, “Birdman”, and “The Revenant”. New Regency did not immediately return a request for comment.
A spokesman for Packer said, “There is no allegation of wrongdoing on Mr. Packer’s behalf. The Israeli and Australian police have confirmed that he was interviewed as a witness, not a suspect.”
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, asked about the police decision, cited Washington’s “very strong relationship” with Netanyahu and the Israeli government.
“We’re certainly aware of it, but we consider it to be an internal Israeli matter,” Nauert said.
Israelis have seen their leaders embroiled in legal trouble before. Last year, Ehud Olmert, prime minister from 2006 to 2009, was released from prison after serving 19 months of a 27-month sentence over a variety of corruption charges.
What happens next?
Benjamin Netanyahu is the dominant Israeli politician of his generation. On the domestic and international stage, no rival comes close to the veteran Likud Party leader known widely as “Bibi”.
It is by no means certain that Netanyahu will be indicted. The police can only make recommendations. It is now up to Israel’s attorney-general, Avichai Mandelblit, to decide whether to press charges. That decision could take months.
But the very fact that the leader of Israel’s ruling right-wing coalition is being scrutinised by prosecutors will likely affect the political calculations of his supporters, rivals and opponents within his own coalition, and across the political spectrum.
Does Netanyahu have to resign?
Netanyahu is under no strict legal obligation to quit following the police recommendations. Indeed, he has given every indication that he intends to remain in office while pursuing a legal battle.
There has been little public pressure from coalition partners for him to step down, although that could change as fellow politicians and the Israeli public study details of the cases.
There was speculation before the police recommendations were made public on Tuesday that Netanyahu might call early elections, seeking a public mandate that would make a prosecutor think twice before moving against him.
However, several polls in recent months have shown his popularity ebbing. And Netanyahu said in a televised address on Tuesday night that he was “certain” the next elections would be held on schedule. They are not due until November 2019.
How did Netanyahu become such a dominant figure in Israeli politics?
Netanyahu has been in power on and off since 1996. The son of a hawkish Israeli historian, he was born in Tel Aviv in 1949 and moved to the United States in the 1960s when his father got an academic job there.
He is the middle of three brothers, all of whom served in elite Israeli commando units. The eldest, Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, became a national hero after he was killed in 1976 leading an assault team that stormed Entebbe Airport in Uganda to rescue Israelis and other airline passengers taken hostage by radical Palestinian and West German hijackers.
Netanyahu says his brother’s death “changed my life and directed it to its present course”.
Telegenic, and speaking fluent American-accented English, he first gained domestic and international attention as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations during the first Palestinian intifada (uprising) that broke out in 1987.
He used this as a springboard to secure the leadership of the right-wing Likud party, running on a platform of opposition to the 1993 Oslo interim peace accords that were spearheaded by U.S. President Bill Clinton, Israel’s then-prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
But Rabin was assassinated in 1995 and Netanyahu was elected prime minister the following year, the youngest-ever Israeli to hold the position and the first to be born in Israel.
Despite having opposed Oslo, Netanyahu worked with Arafat on deploying Palestinian forces into the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron, and even shook Arafat’s hand in public.
But his first term as prime minister was widely seen as a failure. Critics assailed what was seen as a divisive style of leadership, and after losing the election in 1999 he spent a period in the second rank of Israeli politics, overshadowed even within his own party by former general Ariel Sharon.
Returning to prominence after Sharon left Likud and then suffered an incapacitating stroke in 2005, Netanyahu was elected for his second term in 2009 – 10 years after his first. The last election was in 2015, and Netanyahu will become Israel’s longest-serving leader if he serves the full four years until elections are next due in November 2019.
A familiar figure in Washington dating back to the 1980s Reagan administration, Netanyahu most recently had a strained relationship with President Barack Obama, especially over his opposition to the July 2015 Iran nuclear deal promoted by the U.S. leader.
But he has been much closer to Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump. On Dec. 6 last year Trump reversed decades of U.S. foreign policy and recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He also said he would move the U.S. Embassy to the city.
Both moves were hailed by Netanyahu and proved very popular with Israelis, although Palestinians – who claim East Jerusalem for the capital of a future state – and political and religious leaders across the Middle East were dismayed.
So proud is Netanyahu of his relationship with Trump that he has a picture of the two shaking hands at the top of his Facebook page. He is likely to use his relationship with the leader of the world’s most powerful country in any future appeal to the Israeli public.
Who are the potential successors?
Opinion polls suggest that Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid opposition party, is the strongest candidate to succeed Netanyahu if he is forced out. But other candidates could enter the race, which would shift the balance.
Within Netanyahu’s Likud party, a number of members of his cabinet are vying to succeed him, including Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Intelligence Minister Israel Katz and former Education Minister Gideon Saar. None has shown strong signs of planning to depart significantly from Netanyahu’s hawkish policies.
Outside Netanyahu’s party, Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett are possible candidates. Both head far-right parties in Netanyahu’s governing coalition.
What would Netanyahu’s departure mean for Palestine and the region?
A cloud over Netanyahu’s political future would compound the uncertainty surrounding prospects for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that collapsed in 2014.
If Netanyahu steps down, a successor from within Likud would need the support of the party’s hardline central committee, which passed a non-binding resolution in December calling for annexation of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, captured by Israel in a 1967 war and which Palestinians want for a future state.
Recent tensions along the Syrian and Lebanese borders have not so far proved to be a major factor in domestic political calculations, as even Netanyahu’s political opponents say they do not believe his legal troubles would affect his decision-making on security matters.