Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate criminal cases.
The charges come after Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit considered and rejected the arguments of Netanyahu’s legal team in the four-day pre-indictment hearing in October in which they tried to dissuade prosecutors from charging him.
Netanyahu now faces the dual challenges of fighting to remain prime minister while grappling with the frustrating political deadlock that appears to be leading Israel to a third election in the space of a year.
The two issues are deeply intertwined: One of the main roadblocks to the formation of a governing coalition was the refusal of Netanyahu’s potential partners in a unity government to serve as ministers in a government led by a prime minister under criminal indictment.
It was in February, ahead of the year’s first national election in April, when Mendelblit first announced he had decided to indict Netanyahu, pending the October hearings.
Mendelblit’s initial decision to indict came after examining — and agreeing with — two police reports issued in 2018, which recommended that the prime minister be indicted in three affairs known as Case 1000, Case 2000 and Case 4000, cases that have been under investigation for more than three years.
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Israelis have been anticipating this announcement for many months. Netanyahu’s hearing and the subsequent indictment announcement were postponed as a result of the two elections held since the police recommendation was issued, in April and September.
In a similar vein, Mendelblit reportedly delayed the final announcement of Netanyahu’s indictments until after Benny Gantz exhausted his attempts to form a government, due to fears that announcing his decision during the Kahol Lavan leader’s mandate would have been interpreted as interfering with the political process.
Can Netanyahu stay in office now he is indicted?
Yes he can. There is no legal requirement for him to resign as prime minister after an indictment. However, it will be highly problematic politically, particularly because one of the crimes he is accused of is bribery.
There are doubts that Netanyahu can mount a legal defense while running the country and leading Likud into a third election. Even more complex: Potential issues of conflicts of interest, given his power over the Justice Ministry and other arms of law enforcement. On these grounds, the law that permits him to continue as prime minister is likely to be challenged in court.
Netanyahu is expected to fight for immunity from indictment. He has 30 days to request that the Knesset grant him immunity so he may avoid a criminal trial. He is expected to ask to be granted this immunity, but if he does not do so within the allotted time the legal proceedings against him will begin.
If the prime minister does submit his request, the Knesset House Committee will discuss whether he should be granted immunity. Should the committee approve this request, it will then be put to a vote in the Knesset.
However, since Israel's first election was held this year in April, no new House Committee has been appointed. Therefore, there currently isn't a body authorized to make this decision.
What are the three cases Netanyahu has been indicted for?
Case 1000 (fraud and breach of trust)
This case is considered the most straightforward of the alleged crimes as it involves old-fashioned favor-trading. The Israeli police, in their February 2018 recommendation that Netanyahu be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, maintain that the premier received lavish gifts from two wealthy friends — Israeli-born Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer — in exchange for political favors such as promoting the two moguls’ business interests or obtaining visas.
Together, the police said, Milchan and Packer’s gifts to the Netanyahus (including the prime minister’s wife, Sara) are estimated to have amounted to over 1 million shekels (about $280,000). This sum is based on testimony from the gift givers and their employees, as well as receipts and other documents.
Netanyahu has not denied that such gifts were given. He freely admits accepting expensive cigars and pink champagne from Milchan as tokens of friendship, along with other gifts like an expensive piece of jewelry requested by Sara Netanyahu as a birthday gift (from Milchan) and free airplane flights and five-star hotel rooms for the Netanyahus’ eldest son, Yair, from Packer.
But the police, in their indictment recommendation, maintained that Milchan was directly rewarded for his generosity. They said the investigation “revealed that the relationship between the prime minister and Mr. Milchan was one of criminal bribery and not an innocent relationship between friends.”
The police report detailed five areas in which Netanyahu allegedly performed favors for Milchan, specifically:
* Using his influence as prime minister to push for the passage of the so-called Milchan law, which cut taxes for Israelis returning to the Jewish state after spending time abroad — a tax break allegedly worth over 1 million shekels for Milchan. MK Yair Lapid, Netanyahu's finance minister in his 2013-2014 government, testified to this, police said.
* Assisting Milchan in his efforts to get a new 10-year U.S. visa.
* Arranging a meeting between Milchan and the then-director general of the Communications Ministry to advance the producer’s interests in the Israeli television market.
* Furthering a deal tied to Indian businessman Ratan Tata, who was allegedly Milchan’s business partner, despite the fact that “officials in the Defense Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office opposed the project,” say police.
* Intervening to prevent the collapse of the television network Channel 10, in which Milchan was a minority shareholder.
Mendelblit determined that Netanyahu should be indicted for fraud and breach of trust, but dropped the bribery recommendation made by the police.
Case 2000 (fraud and breach of trust)
This case centers around Netanyahu’s alleged desire to receive better coverage in one of the country’s leading dailies, Yedioth Ahronoth — a desire strong enough for him to allegedly strike a deal with the paper’s publisher, Arnon Mozes.
Netanyahu was caught on tape telling Mozes he would convince Yedioth’s main competitor — the free daily Israel Hayom, owned by Netanyahu's patron Sheldon Adelson — to limit its circulation. This would have been a boon to Mozes and Yedioth, weakening their prime source of competition and its ad revenues.
In exchange, the police say, Netanyahu asked Mozes to cover his government less critically and stop attacking him personally.
Netanyahu’s defense has been that the offer to Mozes wasn’t serious; rather, he was “testing” him. But Adelson reportedly told the police when questioned that Netanyahu did attempt to persuade him from plans to expand Israel Hayom — indicating that a possible deal was struck.
As well as the charge against Netanyahu, Mendelblit announced Thursday that Mozes would be indicted for bribery.
Case 4000 (bribery, fraud and breach of trust)
Case 4000 alleges that Netanyahu made decisions benefiting media mogul Shaul Elovitch — the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, Israel's largest telecommunications firm – in exchange for positive coverage on Walla News, a website owned by Elovitch.
The Israel Securities Authority backed the police’s recommendations, which said that both Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, as well as Elovitch and his wife Iris, should be charged.
The police recommended that the prime minister again be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, as well as aggravated fraudulent receiving of an item. The recommended charges against Sara Netanyahu were bribery, fraud, breach of trust and obstruction of justice.
The police said they found evidence that “Netanyahu and those close to him blatantly intervened, 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), while using their ties to Shaul and Iris Elovitch.”
Shaul and Iris Elovitch were indicted Thursday for bribery, obstruction of justice and obstruction of the investigation.
The alleged quid pro quo between the Netanyahus and Elovitches was first revealed by Haaretz’s Gidi Weitz in November 2015, in an exposé titled “The Israeli News Site in Netanyahu's Pocket.”
Leaked testimony from police investigations in all of Netanyahu’s cases have bolstered the argument that both Netanyahu and his wife Sara have systematically leveraged their influence to receive favorable media coverage from media moguls.
Channel 12 News reporter Guy Peleg has quoted testimony from officials involved in Case 4000 indicating that Netanyahu allegedly asked the Communications Ministry to act on behalf of his friend Elovitch. This led to fierce attacks by Netanyahu on Peleg and his news organization.
Additional leaked testimony revealed that U.S. business magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam suffered verbal abuse from Netanyahu's wife, Sara, over their coverage in the Israel Hayom daily that Adelson owns.
Channel 13 News reported that Hollywood producer Milchan, the central figure in Case 1000, told police that he attended a dinner at the Prime Minister's Residence in which Netanyahu's wife lashed at the Adelsons, telling them, 'You are spilling my blood, you are all spilling my blood.” Sheldon Adelson reportedly responded: "Calm down, we're doing the best we can. I lose 40 to 50 million dollars a year [on Israel Hayom]. … We regularly write in your favor and you keep shouting at me."
Another report from Channel 12 involving testimony from Case 2000 quoted Miriam Adelson as saying that Sara Netanyahu “once told me that if Iran gets nuclear weapons and Israel is wiped out, I’ll be to blame, because I’m not defending Bibi.”
Both the prime minister and his wife complained about their coverage with the Adelson newspaper’s former editor in chief, Amos Regev, both in person and in “screaming phone calls.”
Eventually, Miriam Adelson said, she and her husband got fed up and stopped visiting the Netanyahus.