In a move that has jolted the country, Israeli police recommended Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted for several counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
The recommendation will now go to Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mendelblit, to decide on whether to file charges against the man who has dominated Israeli politics for a generation. That process could take weeks, if not months.
Against the backdrop of Israeli flags, a somber Netanyahu made a televised speech at his residence in which he called the allegations baseless and vowed to complete his fourth term in office.
“Over the years, I have been the subject of at least 15 inquiries and investigations,” Netanyahu said. “Some have ended with thunderous police recommendations like those of tonight. All of those attempts resulted in nothing, and this time again they will come to nothing.”
The recommendations, which police made public on Tuesday night, were at the more serious end of the range of possible charges that could have been leveled against “Bibi” following two criminal investigations that have gone on for more than a year.
In one of the cases, known as Case 1000, it is alleged he committed “crimes of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.”
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, including champagne, cigars and jewellery, worth a total of more than one million shekels (US$283,000), to Netanyahu and his family.
Any legal proceedings would likely focus on whether political favors were sought or granted. The police suspect Netanyahu of trying to help Milchan receive tax benefits in Israel, assisting him in receiving a visa in the United States and of promoting his business interests. Netanyahu’s lawyers maintain the presents were simply tokens of friendship.
“Over the years, I have been the subject of at least 15 inquiries and investigations. Some have ended with thunderous police recommendations like those of tonight. All of those attempts resulted in nothing, and this time again they will come to nothing”
The second case – Case 2000 – also alleges “bribery, fraud and breach of trust by the prime minister” and by Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Israel’s biggest-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth. The two men, police said, discussed ways of slowing the growth of a rival daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, “through legislation and other means.”
“Those recommendations have no legal value in a democratic country,” Netanyahu said in his address, adding that “our government will finish its term and I am sure that in the next elections (due in 2019), I will again win your confidence.”
Avi Gabbay, leader of the opposition Labour party, said, however, that “the Netanyahu era is over.” He tweeted: “It is the duty of every decent public figure to strengthen the police and the law and to act to end the path of the government headed by Netanyahu.”
The 68-year-old right-wing premier has been questioned seven times by police over the allegations. In turn, he has questioned the probity of the police and alleges a plot by his political opponents to force him from office. He has also branded the accusations against him “fake news.”
Israelis have seen their leaders embroiled in legal troubles before. Last year, Ehud Olmert, prime minister from 2006 to 2009, was released from prison after serving 19 months of a 27-month sentence after being prosecuted on a variety of corruption charges.
While an indictment alone would not legally oblige Netanyahu to resign, he would likely face pressure to do so. If convicted, he would be legally forced to step down once the appeals process is exhausted. Parliament could also enact a special procedure against him before his case is exhausted if he was found to be guilty of moral turpitude.
Netanyahu’s time as premier is fast closing on the record 13 years in power chalked up by Israel’s revered founding father, David Ben-Gurion. The former army commando first held office from 1996-1999, before returning to power in the Knesset in 2009. His coalition currently controls 66 seats out of 120 in that chamber.
With reporting from Reuters, Agence France-Presse