Damaging police report looms over Netanyahu re-election bid

2018-12-03 07:46
Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu. (Debbie Hil, AP, file)

Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu. (Debbie Hil, AP, file)

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Israeli police recommended indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on bribery charges, adding to a growing collection of legal troubles that have clouded the longtime leader's prospects for pursuing re-election next year.

Netanyahu denied the latest allegations. But his fate now lies in the hands of his attorney general, who will decide in the coming months whether the prime minister should stand trial on a host of corruption allegations that could play a central role in next year's election campaign.

In a scathing attack on police investigators in a speech on Sunday, Netanyahu called the investigation a "witch hunt" that was "tainted from the start".

"Israel is a law-abiding country. And in a law-abiding country police recommendations have no legal weight," he told his Likud party at a Hannukah candle-lighting ceremony. Most of his half-hour holiday speech went to dismissing the allegations, and the boisterous crowd of hundreds of party members rallied behind him.

Israeli police recommend indicting Netanyahu in telecom case

Israeli police are recommending Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted in a corruption case involving Israel's telecom giant. Police say on Sunday they have established an evidentiary foundation to charge Netanyahu and his wife Sara with accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust.

Sunday's decision followed a lengthy investigation into a case involving Netanyahu's relationship with Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Israel's telecom giant Bezeq.

Police said they found sufficient evidence that confidants of Netanyahu promoted regulatory changes worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Bezeq. In exchange, they believe Netanyahu used his connections with Elovitch to receive positive press coverage on Bezeq's popular news site Walla.

In a statement, police said the investigation concluded that Netanyahu and Elovitch engaged in a "bribe-based relationship".

Police said they believed there was sufficient evidence to charge Netanyahu and his wife Sara with accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust. They also recommended charges be brought against Elovitch, members of his family and members of his Bezeq management team.

Police have already recommended indicting Netanyahu on corruption charges in two other cases. One involves accepting gifts from billionaire friends, and the second revolves around alleged offers of advantageous legislation for a major newspaper in return for favorable coverage.

The prime minister has denied any wrongdoing.

"The police recommendations regarding me and my wife don't surprise anyone," Netanyahu said in a statement. "These recommendations were decided upon and leaked even before the investigation began."

The police recommendations do not have any immediate impact on Netanyahu. They go to his hand-picked attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, who will review the material and make the final decision on whether to press charges.

That decision will have a great impact on Netanyahu's future. Israeli law is unclear about whether an indicted prime minister would have to step down. But at the minimum, a trial would put great pressure on Netanyahu, who has been in office for nearly a decade, to step aside.

Israel must hold its next election by November 2019. But Israeli governments rarely last their full terms.

Netanyahu last month was nearly forced to call elections after a key partner withdrew from his coalition to protest a cease-fire with the Hamas militant group in Gaza. Netanyahu now leads a coalition with a razor-thin 61 seat majority in the 120-seat parliament.

With his Likud Party firmly behind him and his remaining coalition partners remaining silent, there does not seem to be any immediate threat to the government.

Mandelblit's office has not said when he will issue his decision. Most analysts expect him to take several months to review the material.

Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Hebrew University, said Netanyahu will likely try to push forward elections before Mandelblit decides whether to indict. Netanyahu holds a solid lead in all opinion polls, and a victory would make it more difficult for Mandelblit to indict and potentially force out a newly re-elected leader.

"He'll send a message to the attorney general that everyone knew about these three police reports and they still voted for him and want him in power," Hazan said. That would force the attorney general "to seriously reconsider his decision," he said.

The Bezeq case, known as Case 4000, is the most serious of which Netanyahu has been accused. Two of his top confidants have turned state witnesses and are believed to have provided police with incriminating evidence.

Netanyahu held the government's communications portfolio until last year and oversaw regulation in the field. Former journalists at the Walla news site have attested to being pressured to refrain from negative reporting of Netanyahu.

Opposition lawmakers called on Netanyahu to resign.

"The prime minister has no moral mandate to keep his seat and must resign today. Israel must go to elections," said Tamar Zandberg, head of the dovish Meretz party.

But Netanyahu's colleagues in the ruling Likud Party lined up behind him, attacking outgoing Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh for releasing the recommendation on his last day on the job.

The appointment of Alsheikh's potential successor is being held up after a government-appointed committee rejected his candidacy, and Netanyahu has repeatedly criticized the police as the investigations into his behavior have mounted.

Micky Zohar, a Likud lawmaker, sarcastically called the police report Alsheikh's "parting gift" to Netanyahu.

Netanyahu and his wife have long had reputations for being overindulgent and out of touch with common Israelis.

Sara Netanyahu went on trial in October on fraud and breach of trust charges for allegedly spending roughly $100 000 of government funds on private meals at the prime minister's official residence, even as there was a full-time chef on staff.

In 2016, a court ruled she abused an employee and awarded the man $42 000 in damages. Other former employees have accused her of mistreatment, charges the Netanyahus have vehemently denied.

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