Analysis: Bibi on the ropes

“He does not have a public or moral mandate to determine such fateful matters for the state of Israel when there is the fear – and I have to say it is real and not without basis – that he will make decisions based on his personal interest in political survival and not based on the national interest.”

So said Benjamin Netanyahu 10 years ago when police recommended indicting his predecessors as prime minister, Ehud Olmert, after a lengthy investigation into corruption allegations.

Last week, however, Netanyahu adopted an altogether different tone after police announced that they had recommended the attorney general charge him with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two cases.

Unlike Olmert – who ended up serving 16 months in prison – Netanyahu shows few signs of going down without a fight.

Instead, just minutes after the announcement by the police, he delivered a feisty public statement pledging that his government would finish its term and that he would fight the next general election, due in November 2019. The following morning Netanyahu delivered a broad-side at the police, suggesting that their report was a “radical and biased document with holes like Swiss cheese”.

Netanyahu is connected to four police investigations. The recommendations last week relate to two of them.

In the first, ‘Case 1000’, the prime minister and his wife, Sara, is accused of accepting gifts – including champagne, cigars and jewellery – totalling around £300,000 from wealthy businessmen in return for advancing their interests.

He is, for instance, alleged to have helped Arnon Milchan, an Israeli billionaire and Hollywood producer, in his pursuit of a US visa and in a deal to sell an Israeli TV station.

Netanyahu is also said to have pushed a tax bill which was financially advantageous to Milchan. This allegation has an important political twist. Yair Lapid, who was finance minister in Netanyahu’s previous coalition, has testified against the prime minister to police.

Netanyahu’s supporters, of course, note that Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, is a bitter foe of the prime minister who hopes to eject him from office in 18 months time. During acrimonious scenes in the Knesset, leading Likud MKs accused Lapid of being a “pathetic snitch”. “That’s how criminals talk, not public servants,” Lapid later fired back. Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harrow, is also 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, 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. The case rests on hours of recordings found on Harrow’s computer, of conversations between the prime minister and Mozes.

Netanyahu strenuously denies all allegations of wrongdoing. He does not dispute that he received gifts from friends, but claims they were not illegal or bribes, while also claiming that he never had any intention of acting on the supposed deal with Mozes.

(A further police investigation – ‘Case 3000’ – involves accusations that close associates of the prime minister pushed the purchase of German submarines by the Israeli navy, in a deal from which they personally benefited. Netanyahu is likely to be questioned by the police as part of this investigation, but possibly as a witness rather than a suspect).

While opposition leaders called for Netanyahu to stand down after the police recommendations were released, the prime minister is under no legal obligation to do so. It may be a number of months before the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, decides whether to indict Netanyahu, and, even at this point, the prime minister is entitled to hearings before a final decision on pressing ahead with the charges is made.

There has been speculation that, despite his pledge that elections will not be held before the scheduled date of 5 November 2019, Netanyahu may attempt to bring polling day forward as a way of avoiding an indictment.

This gamble would rest on the notion that the attorney general would find it difficult to bring charges with an election imminent. Moreover, it would also involve a calculation by Netanyahu that his political position was strong enough to ensure his re-election and allow him to suggest that, if he won, the voters had delivered their verdict.

Such speculations underlines the fact that Netanyahu’s survival depends, at least in part, on political as well as legal considerations.

The prime minister passed the first political test when the police recommendations were announced and his coalition remained in tact. Netanyahu will have been acutely aware that Olmert was principally brought down not by the decisions of the police or the attorney general, but by pressure from his coalition partner, Labor’s Ehud Barak.

The weakest link in Netanyahu’s coalition is probably finance minister Moshe Khalon. Khalon’s Kulanu party – the most centrist element of the government –  holds 10 of the coalition’s 67 seats. He has indicated that, while he would not pull the plug on Netanyahu as a result of police recommendations, he believes the prime minister should resign if he is indicted.

Analysts suggest that Khalon will be torn between his desire to shore up his reputation as an advocate of clean government and his wish to see the government go to its full term in the hope that he can deliver on his 2015 cost of living campaign pledges.

The education minister Naftali Bennett, whose hard right Jewish Home party provides the coalition with eight seats, also adopted a wait and see approach, but signalled that his view may change if the attorney general presses charges. In a public swipe at Netanyahu, he suggested that “taking gifts in large sums over a long period of time is not living up to [the] standard of his office,” while also cautioning that “until the attorney general makes his decision, I call upon all parties to act in a restrained, responsible and civil manner”.

In the meantime, a weakened prime minister will have to keep a watchful eye on his right-wing base, giving him even less room – were he to want it – to chart a more centrist course on relations with the Palestinians and West Bank settlement-building.

Ultimately, of course, Netanyahu’s coalition partners, together with his Likud party, will keep a close eye on public opinion. Polls taken in the wake of the police announcement indicated that Likud continues to lead in the polls.

The prime minister also had some relief with a poll which showed a 12-point drop in the number of voters who thought he should resign. Nonetheless, nearly half of Israelis – 48 per cent – still believe that he should quit.

That Netanyahu remains a deeply divisive figure in Israeli politics was further underlined by a separate poll which showed that 49 per cent of respondents sided with the police’s version that he had acted improperly. Twenty-five per cent said they believed Netanyahu, while the remainder, 26 per cent, said they did not know whom to believe.

Last weekend, Netanyahu addressed the Munich Security Conference where – as he has done so often – he used the threat of Iranian expansionism to present himself, in the words of one commentator, as “the indispensable statesman who fights tirelessly for Israel’s interests”.

However, as he was dramatically waving part of an Iranian drone shot down by Israel 10 days ago before the cameras, Netanyahu found himself mired in new legal difficulties.

On Sunday, police announced a series of arrests – including of close associates of the prime minister – in ‘Case 4000’.

It involves accusations that Netanyahu’s appointee as the director-general of the Communications Ministry, Shlomo Filber, 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 benefits for Bezeq.

Netanyahu’s problems were compounded by the news last night that Filber has signed a deal to turn states witness and testify against the prime minister in return for reportedly escaping jail himself. This brought renewed cries of “snitch” from Netanyahu’s supporters and demands for his resignation from Avi Gabbay.

It was the second major revelation in a day of fast-moving developments. Earlier, a separate alleged corruption case involving the prime minister was revealed. In ‘Case 1270’ a former Netanyahu family spokesperson, Nir Hefetz, is accused of offering to appoint judge Hila Gerstel as attorney general if she agreed to halt an investigation into the prime minister’s wife, Sara. Gerstel, who is now president of the Supreme Court, has been summoned for questioning by the police. As the Times of Israel reported, “police set up an unprecedented situation in which the head of the judiciary was compelled to testify in a case linked to the head of the government”.

“The Netanyahu era is over,” Gabbay told supporters last night. The houdini of Israeli politics – who will become the country’s longest-serving prime minister if he survives in office until next year – has repeatedly escaped political and legal crises which might have felled others. This time, however, his famed luck may have run out.