Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal difficulties deepened further on Saturday with police recommending new bribery charges against him.
In potentially the most serious of several cases involving the prime minister – known as “Case 4000” – police have recommended that he face charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust, and fraudulently accepting benefits.
In February, police announced that they had recommended the attorney general charge Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two other cases.
The latest recommendations have provoked a furious row, with critics calling on the prime minister to resign, while his defenders attack the police and the legal system. The investigations are expected to form the backdrop to a fiercely fought election campaign, with Israel due to go to the polls by next November.
The attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, vigorously defended the police and attacked those accusing them of a “witch hunt” and “coup” against Netanyahu.
“I strongly protest those remarks and insinuations, it’s completely untrue,” Mandelblit told a tense Knesset committee. “I support the police and give them all my backing; I think that everything they did was done professionally.”
The attorney general will make the final decision on whether to indict the prime minister, following a review of the police’s recommendations by state prosecutors. A decision is not expected imminently: Mandelblit has said he wishes to review all three cases involving Netanyahu at the same time.
The latest case, in which charges have also be recommended against Sara Netanyahu, involves accusations that Netanyahu used his position to advance the interests of Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company. Police suspect that Shaul Elovitch, owner of the Walla news site and a key shareholder of Bezeq, swayed coverage of Netanyahu on the news site in exchange for regulatory benefits for Bezeq.
The prime minister served as acting communications minister until May last year. Police said there was “improper conduct between Netanyahu and Elovitch on two main axes: diverting media coverage in exchange for preferable regulation”.
The police also charged that “the prime minister and his associates intervened in a blatant and ongoing manner, and sometimes even daily, in the content published by the Walla News website, and also sought to influence the appointment of senior officials (editors and reporters) via their contacts with Shaul and Iris Elovitch [the Bezeq owner’s wife].” They say Netanyahu and Shaul Elovitch were engaged in a “bribe-based relationship”.
Sara Netanyahu is accused of acting on her husband’s behalf to coordinate coverage at Walla and police recommended she face charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Police are believed to have amassed a welter of evidence in the case, with testimony taken from more than 60 witnesses. Journalists at Walla have apparently said they were pressured to avoid negative coverage of Netanyahu. The police case was buttressed by the decision of two former suspects – Netanyahu media adviser Nir Hefetz and the former Communications Ministry head Shlomo Filber – to flip and turn state’s evidence.
The prime minister and his wife vehemently deny all the allegations against them, and accuse the police of acting improperly and illegally.
In a fiery speech to Likud party supporters on Saturday evening, Netanyahu launched a series of attacks on the police and those investigating him.
“The witch-hunt against us continues,” he charged. He claimed that the investigation was “skewed from the start … A year ago, before even opening the investigations, they [the police] decided what the outcome would be and leaked their conclusions.”
The prime minister said the accusations were “baseless”. “I didn’t give anything to Elovitch and I didn’t get anything from Elovitch,” he said. “I got terrible coverage at Walla,” Netanyahu continued. “Walla is a left-wing website that gives and has given me negative coverage for years, especially on the eve of the last elections.”
The prime minister’s supporters also joined the fray. Coalition whip David Amsalem, for instance, said: “This is persecution by the Israel Police; this is an actual coup.” He also said of former Israel Police chief Roni Alsheich, who oversaw the investigation before leaving his post on Saturday: “I have not seen so much evil, cruelty and ingratitude packed into one person.”
However, Opposition leader Tzipi Livni called on Netanyahu to resign “before he destroys law enforcement bodies to save his own skin”. “The Israeli nation deserves clean leadership,” she declared.
“Benjamin Netanyahu, who is neck-deep in investigations and suspicions, must resign today and not even run in the upcoming elections,” Tweeted the Zionist Union faction chair Yoel Hasson.
Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, called on Likud to remove Netanyahu as its leader, adding: “This is a sad day, sad for all Israeli citizens… as well as for all those who have known Netanyahu for dozens of years like myself and others, and saw the process of corruption caused by too many years in power.”
There was a cautious, muted response from leading figures in the coalition parties which support Netanyahu’s premiership.
In a separate development, police last month also recommended a series of indictments in so-called “Case 3000”, an investigation into alleged multi-million pound bribes in the purchase of naval vessels, involving close members of the prime minister’s circles. Among those accused by the police were David Shimron, Netanyahu’s cousin and former attorney, and the prime minister’s former chief of staff, David Sharan.
Former leading figures in the military and national security establishment were also accused of offences including bribery, fraud, breach of trust, money laundering and other lesser charges, a police statement said.
There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by the prime minister in this case, although he has been interviewed as a witness.
However, Netanyahu’s former defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, directly accused the prime minister of involvement in the bribery scheme. After the police issued their recommendations, he said: “There was no way that Netanyahu didn’t know.”
The attorney general is already considering the police recommendations in two other cases directly involving the prime minister.
In the first, “Case 1000”, the prime minister and his wife are accused of accepting gifts – including champagne, cigars and jewellery – totalling around £300,000 from wealthy businessmen in return for advancing their interests. Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harrow, is a state witness in the case
In the second case, “Case 2000”, Netanyahu is accused of bribing Arnon Mozes, the owner of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, and offering to help restrict the circulation of its rival, Israel Hayom, in return for better coverage. Israel Hayom is owned by the US billionaire and strong Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson. Again, Harrow is a witness.
Israeli media reports suggest that a state prosecutor appointed to oversee and review the corruption allegations has recommended the prime minister be charged with bribery in at least one of the cases, with further unspecific charges recommended in another. The prime minister vehemently denies all accusations of wrongdoing.
The allegations come at a key moment in the Israeli electoral timetable, with elections due by next November. There has been consistent speculation that Netanyahu may call early elections to assist him with future legal difficulties. It is thought that the attorney general might baulk at indicting Netanyahu were he to be returned to office in fresh elections.