This February, the Israeli police announced that it has enough evidence to charge the powerful prime minister of over nine years, Binyamin Netanyahu, with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in two separate cases called Case 1000 and Case 2000. It is collecting evidence in two other cases, Case 3000 and Case 4000, which have the potential to result in further charges against Netanyahu.
The Cases Against Netenyahu
In Case 1000, the police claim that Prime Minister Netanyahu received over $300,000 in luxury gifts, mostly from Arnon Milchan, an Israeli Hollywood producer. In return, Netanyahu allegedly pushed a bill that would give Israelis a twenty-year tax break upon returning to Israel after living abroad, which would have directly benefited Arnon Milchan had it been passed. He also has admitted to lobbying John Kerry, the then U.S. secretary of state, to extend Milchan’s American visa. Although the bill was never passed, and the visa could be disregarded as an innocuous favor for a friend, the police still believe that Case 1000 has the potential to prove that Netanyahu’s influence can be bought.
The second case, Case 2000, is potentially strong enough to merit an indictment. It relates to backroom deals Netanyahu allegedly made in exchange for favorable press coverage. The police claim that Netanyahu struck a corrupt deal with Arnon Mozes, the owner of the most widely circulated Israeli newspaper, Yediot Ahronot. He purportedly promised to use his influence to curb Mozes’ biggest competitor, a daily newspaper called Israel Hayom, which is pro-Netanyahu, if in exchange Yediot Ahronot, which is usually critical of Netanyahu, gave him favorable coverage. Since the government buys the majority of the advertisements in Israel Hayom, Netanyahu could directly cut its source of revenue and force it to reduce circulation.
Ari Harow, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, is a witness for the prosecution in Case 2000. Harow was a close associate of Netanyahu but has agreed to testify that Netanyahu instructed him to arrange the deal in exchange for a plea deal that will protect him from going to prison for corruption himself. Further, the police now have access to audio recordings found on Harow’s computer of Netanyahu negotiating the deal with Mozes. Between Harow’s testimony and the audio recordings, the police have stronger evidence against Netanyahu in this case than they have in Case 1000.
Case 3000 has the potential to show Netanyahu to put personal gain above national security, which makes it the most dangerous to his public image. Allegedly, several of his closest confidants accepted bribes from the representative of a German submarine manufacturer, ThyssenKrupp, to lobby for an arms deal to buy nuclear-capable submarines that Israel did not need. Germany and Israel agreed on the arms deal in October 2016, but Germany refused to sign it unless the allegations about corruption that soon arose were proved false. The investigation is still underway, and Netanyahu is not yet an official suspect. However, two of the people that the police believe they have enough evidence against to indict regarding this case are in his inner circle, including David Shimron who is Netanyahu’s personal lawyer, political advisor, and cousin. Due to his close ties to the people who orchestrated the deal, Netanyahu is under suspicion at the very least of having been aware that Israeli defense funds were being misspent on a corrupt arms deal. The police are trying to question him although he is attempting to postpone the interrogations.
Like Case 2000, Case 4000 relates to a corrupt deal made for positive media coverage. The police allege that Netanyahu pushed for lenient regulatory laws that benefited Shaul Elovitch, a large shareholder of the telecommunications company Bezeq, in exchange for favorable coverage in Elovitch’s online news publication, Walla!. Shlomo Filber, the former director general of the Communications Ministry who used to be a close confident of Netanyahu, recently agreed to be a state witness and his testimony has the potential to result in another police recommendation for an indictment against Netanyahu. Last week, Netanyahu became an official suspect when the police questioned him for hours “under caution.”
What Happens Next?
The police can collect evidence and build cases, but only the attorney general has the power to indict the prime minister. The current attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, was appointed by Netanyahu and shares the prime minister’s conservative ideology. However, he has shown himself to be willing to go against Netanyahu when necessary, as when he recommended that the courts charge Netanyahu’s wife with misusing state funds. He also denounced a Netanyahu initiative that would have made it illegal for the police to recommend charging state officials, which would have undermined the current cases against Netanyahu.
Mandelblit’s decision may take months, and, in the meantime, Netanyahu will likely stay in office, as he insists on his innocence. He has repeatedly and publicly denounced the investigations as corrupt, biased, and politically motivated. His allegations are backed by the fact that the police commissioner has publicly expressed bitterness against Netanyahu since he did not make him the head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s Secret Service. Additionally, a key prosecution witness, Yair Lapid, is a political opponent of Netanyahu. Lapid was Netanyahu’s finance minister before Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, was left by the governing coalition in 2015. He claims that during his time as finance minister he witnessed Netanyahu’s corruption firsthand. However, among the steady stream of anti-Netanyahu statements he has made, he has also announced his plan to replace Netanyahu in the next election, making his testimony subject to scrutiny.
The response to the allegations against Netanyahu in Israel’s government has fallen neatly along political lines. Leading members of Netanyahu’s Likud party are united behind him and are joining him in publicly denouncing the investigations as unfounded and biased. There is no obvious successor or competitor to Netanyahu in his own party, so no one is publicly attempting to use the allegations to force him out from within Likud.
According to The Economist, some key ministers in the governing coalition have privately admitted that they believe the charges are credible. However, they are unwilling to condemn the Prime Minister prematurely since doing so would destabilize the government and would alienate conservative voters. A notable outlier in the coalition, however, is Naftali Bennett, the leader of the conservative Jewish Home Party, which is a crucial part of the governing coalition. Although his party only has eight seats in the Knesset, Netanyahu’s coalition needs these seats to maintain its slim majority. Bennett publicly criticized Netanyahu but simultaneously recommended that the coalition refrain from acting against the Prime Minister unless the attorney general issues an indictment.
Ironically, in light of his insistence on staying in office despite the looming indictments, Netanyahu once used corruption allegations against the former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to gain political clout. In 2008, he said, “a prime minister who is sunk up to his neck in investigations has no moral and public mandate.”
Across the aisle, the opposition parties are using Netanyahu’s statements from 2008 against him and are calling for him to resign. Avi Gabbay, the leader of the main opposition party, the Zionist Union, went so far as to say that the members of the leading coalition were facing a choice between supporting Netanyahu and upholding the rule of law. A Zionist Union representative in the Knesset, Shelly Yachimovich, called Netanyahu “a corrupt tyrant” as she tweeted her indignation that anyone could support him after the allegations.
However, the opposition simply does not have the leverage to oust Netanyahu. The largest opposition party, the Zionist Union, is disorganized and undergoing a change in leadership. Its impotence is furthered by its increasing lack of popular support in the face of the growth of the conservative voting block in the last several decades. Even this month with the allegations against Netanyahu dominating the headlines, Likud has made gains in polls while the Zionist Union has not.
Despite the cloud of corruption surrounding him, Netanyahu has the experience and proven ability to give his people faith that he is their best choice if they prioritize safety. Recently, Israel lost its first jet since the 1980s when it tried to retaliate against an Iranian drone that flew into its airspace, which was a blow to Israel’s sense of military superiority to its regional enemies. To protect himself, Netanyahu must keep national focus on foreign threats, which will not be difficult in the current hostile international climate, and ensure that the Israeli populace thinks that he is best-suited to protect them.
Netanyahu’s coalition is strong, the Opposition is weak, and the public wants a sense of safety more than a purge of internal corruption. Thus, it seems likely that Netanyahu will be able to hold onto power in the foreseeable future despite the corruption allegations. However, Israeli law is strong, and these allegations may eventually catch up to him. Even then, his downfall would likely drag out for months or even years as the cases are drawn out in continuing investigations and, eventually, in trials.Claire Potter is a Staff Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons and can be found here.
Claire Potter is a first-year potential political science major at the University of Chicago interested in journalism and international relations. On campus, she is a member of the Women in Public Service Project and is a Fellows Ambassador at the Institute of Politics. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, reading, and exploring the city.