A tsunami of allegations hit Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in mid-February, with the police recommending that he be indicted for corruption. The premier has faced such crises before, but never on such an unprecedented scale.
Four major police investigations are threatening to dethrone "King Bibi." Two have already seen the police recommend indictments against him, and two more are gathering momentum at a frightening rate for the prime minister.
Here's what you need to know...
The case involving gifts and favor-trading
After more than a year of investigations, interrogations and endless speculation, on February 13 the Israel Police informed Netanyahu they are recommending that he be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two cases.
- Corruption Alone Won't Lead to Netanyahu's Downfall
- It’s Not Her, It’s Him
- What's New in Israeli Politics? Nothing, Really
Now it’s up to the head of Israel’s legal system, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, to decide whether the evidence is strong enough to indict the prime minister, following the police recommendations made public on Tuesday night.
What is Netanyahu accused of?
The first of the two criminal probes – which the police call Case 1000 – involves straightforward bribery and favor-trading. In fact, the affair is commonly referred to by the items Netanyahu and his wife Sara allegedly took as bribes – cigars and champagne.
The Netanyahus haven't disputed that they got lavish gifts from two wealthy friends: Israeli-born Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan; and Australian billionaire James Packer. But they vehemently deny the presents were in exchange for political favors such as promoting the two moguls’ business interests, or for obtaining visas.
The expensive cigars and pink champagne Milchan regularly sent to the Netanyahus were merely tokens of friendship, the prime minister and his team have argued; likewise an expensive piece of jewelry requested by Sara Netanyahu as a birthday gift.
Packer’s generosity was also directed toward the Netanyahus’ eldest son, Yair – free airplane flights and five-star hotel rooms – not to mention tickets for all of the Netanyahus to a concert by Packer’s ex-fiancée, Mariah Carey.
According to the police report, however, Milchan was rewarded for his generosity. The evidence released regarding a quid pro quo arrangement provided the basis for a recommendation to indict Hollywood producer Milchan on bribery charges along with the prime minister.
The police report stated that 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 specific areas in which Netanyahu allegedly performed favors for Milchan:
* He pushed for the so-called Milchan law, which cuts taxes for Israelis returning to Israel after spending time abroad – a break worth over 1 million shekels for Milchan. MK Yair Lapid, Netanyahu's finance minister in his previous government, testified to this, police said.
* He assisted Milchan in getting a new 10-year U.S. visa.
* He arranged a meeting between Milchan and the then-director general of the Communications Ministry to advance the producer's interests in the Israeli television market.
* He helped further a deal tied to Indian businessman Ratan Tata, who was Milchan's business partner. The report said Netanyahu "pushed the deal even though officials in the Defense Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office opposed the project."
* He also intervened to prevent the collapse of the television network Channel 10, in which Milchan was a minority shareholder.
Together, police said, Milchan and Packer's gifts to the Netanyahus are estimated to have amounted to 1 million shekels.
The police report was based on testimony from the gift-givers and their employees, as well as receipts and other documents.
The case involving Israel's leading newspapers and Netanyahu’s relationship with Sheldon Adelson
The second allegation of wrongdoing is known by the police as Case 2000.
This centers around Netanyahu’s supposed desire to receive better coverage in one of the country’s leading dailies, Yedioth Ahronoth – a desire strong enough for him to allegedly cut 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 patron Sheldon Adelson – to limit Israel Hayom’s circulation, thus boosting Yedioth. In return, Netanyahu allegedly asked Mozes to ease off on his paper’s highly critical coverage of the prime minister and his government.
In interviews, Netanyahu has said the offer to Mozes wasn’t serious; rather, he was “testing” him. But Adelson reportedly told the police when questioned last May and June that Netanyahu indeed tried to persuade him to back off from plans to expand Israel Hayom. And former Netanyahu chief of staff Ari Harow, who was involved in the talks between Mozes and Netanyahu – and who allegedly recorded the conversations on the premier’s behalf – turned state’s evidence as part of the deal in a separate fraud case against him.
Like Milchan in Case 1000, police recommended that Netanyahu's alleged partner in crime be indicted as well.
The case involving favorable coverage on an Israeli news site
A week after Netanyahu was hit by the police report recommending indictment in cases 1000 and 2000, a potentially even bigger bombshell hit him: one confidant turning state's evidence in what the police call Case 4000 and reports that another confidant, Nir Hefetz, allegedly tried to bribe a former judge by offering her the plum post of attorney general in return for her closing several cases involving the premier's wife, Sara Netanyahu, in 2015.
Case 4000 involves suspicions that Netanyahu, in his role as communications minister from 2014 to 2017 (while he was also prime minister), intervened with regulators to help the Bezeq group, which is controlled by Shaul Elovitch. In exchange, Elovitch, a longtime friend of Netanyahu’s, allegedly ordered Bezeq’s Walla news site to provide favorable coverage of the prime minister and his wife Sara.
Two of Netanyahu's confidants and several senior officials at Bezeq were recently arrested as part of the ongoing corruption investigation.
On February 20, former Communications Ministry Director General Shlomo Filber became a state's witness in the case – a dramatic development given Filber is suspected of serving as the middleman between Netanyahu and Elovitch.
Netanyahu is expected to be questioned in connection to the case in the future.
The case involving German submarines
Case 3000 involves suspected corruption in Israel’s purchase of submarines and other naval vessels from Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems. Several men close to Netanyahu are suspected of bribing Israeli defense officials to get them to buy submarines from the Germans.
One of the suspects, Michael Ganor, has turned state’s evidence in exchange for a year in prison and a $2.8 million fine. Ganor has reportedly testified that attorney David Shimron promised to use his close ties to Netanyahu – as his cousin and personal lawyer – to advance the submarine deal. Ganor, ThyssenKrupp’s representative in Israel, has also used Shimron as his attorney.
Netanyahu is also expected to be questioned in connection to this case.
How long can Netanyahu really last as PM?
If his past behavior and statements are any indication, Netanyahu will battle to the bitter end; he’s determined to be prime minister for as long as possible.
Responding to the initial police recommendations on February 13, Netanyahu vowed to carry on as prime minister. "These recommendations mean nothing in a democratic society," he said, adding that he will "continue to lead Israel responsibly and faithfully."
A week before the police report was released, Netanyahu released a defiant video statement on Facebook: “Many people are asking me what’s going to happen to me. I want to calm you all down. Nothing will happen, because I know the truth. I am confident at the end of the day that the legal authorities will conclude that the simple truth is that there is nothing to all this.”
Much like U.S. President Donald Trump, Netanyahu has characterized the criminal investigations against him as a partisan witch hunt. He has repeatedly accused his enemies in politics and the media of trying to oust him using the legal system because they failed using the ballot box. He has vowed not to let that happen.
But increasingly, Netanyahu is being seen as crippled, weakened by each revelation of a close friend or confidant possibly turning against him. There is growing doubt as to whether he will be able to hold onto political power as he fights the growing list of accusations against him.
How long will the legal process take in Cases 1000 and 2000?
The procedure for indicting a public figure is far from speedy. First, prosecutors have to consider the evidence the police have provided. Then they have to give it to Netanyahu’s lawyers, after which a hearing is scheduled with the attorney general, where the prime minister’s team can argue why the evidence is insufficient.
Only then will Mendelblit make his final decision on whether the prime minister will face charges. Potentially, this process could be extremely long. The police investigation took far longer than expected due to Netanyahu’s busy schedule and extensive travel. The same reasons may be used to extend the process of organizing his team’s pre-indictment hearing, thus delaying the filing of any potential indictment.
What happens next?
Under Israeli law, Netanyahu isn’t obligated to resign even if he’s actually indicted.
In 2008, in the midst of various corruption investigations, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced his plan to step down, saying he couldn’t fight his legal battle properly while running the country. He didn’t even wait for the police recommendation to indict him. In the end, he was convicted of taking bribes and served more than 16 months in prison. But the more-prestigious Netanyahu – now in his fourth term as prime minister – holds a much firmer grip on power than Olmert ever did.
Plus, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and its partners in the governing coalition are likely to stay loyal to him, in order to prevent the collapse of the government and a new general election. On the other hand, a massive anti-Netanyahu protest movement could make his party and coalition lose faith. In polls, the majority of Israelis (nearly 60 percent in a December TV poll, for example) say they believe Netanyahu should resign if the police recommend an indictment.