The Israeli Crime Minister Finally on the Ropes
Israeli Police Urge Bribery and Fraud Charges Against Netanyahu. Again.
By David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner
JERUSALEM — The Israeli police recommended Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted on bribery, fraud and other charges, accusing him of trading regulatory favors for fawning news coverage, in what is potentially the most damaging of a series of corruption cases against him.
It was the third time this year that the police have urged that Mr. Netanyahu face criminal prosecution. And it dealt another blow to his teetering governing coalition, which narrowly averted collapse last month and is clinging to a one-vote majority in Parliament while edging closer to calling early elections.
Mr. Netanyahu, who has dominated Israeli politics for a decade and continues to lead all potential challengers in opinion polls, must now await the decision of the attorney general, whom he appointed, on whether to indict him in all three cases. Depending on the decision, which could take months, he could be Israel’s first sitting prime minister to be indicted.
But for now, his position remains secure. And if he wins another election before charges are brought, he could be strong enough politically to try to remain in office even while facing prosecution.
In the other cases, he is accused in the first of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts in exchange for political favors, and in the second of trading influence for favorable coverage in a leading Israeli newspaper.
[A brief guide to the corruption cases against Mr. Netanyahu.]
Mr. Netanyahu, a close ally of President Trump’s, called the recommendations in the latest case unsurprising because of previously published leaks, and repeated his contention in the previous cases that they would come to nothing.
“The witch hunt against us continues,” he told a gathering of activists from his Likud party.
Noting that Sunday was the first night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, he said, “We’re celebrating the victory of light over darkness,” adding that the light will always win out.
“A true Hanukkah miracle,” he said. “What a beautiful present they gave us for the holiday.”
Still, this latest blow to Mr. Netanyahu threatened to subvert his efforts to consolidate power and burnish his image as Israel’s security czar and the country’s indispensable, irreplaceable leader. If he remains in office next summer, he would overtake David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding leader, as the country’s longest-serving prime minister.
After his defense minister resigned last month over the government’s handling of the simmering conflict with the Palestinian territory of Gaza, Mr. Netanyahu deftly won a power struggle with some members of his coalition. He appealed directly to the public in a televised address, warning that any attempt to topple the government at such a complex time for national security would be irresponsible.
Aside from Gaza, Israel faces serious challenges on its northern frontier, with Iranian efforts to entrench itself in Syria and supply sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Mr. Netanyahu has sought to build an international alliance with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and other predominantly Sunni Muslim countries to counter Iran’s influence in the region, an effort aligned with the Trump administration’s priorities.
Having underscored the security challenges Israel faces, Mr. Netanyahu then took over the job of defense minister, adding it to his portfolio, which, in addition to prime minister, already included foreign minister and health minister.
In the new case against him, Mr. Netanyahu is not accused of getting rich himself, but of enriching the country’s biggest telecommunications company, Bezeq, at the public’s expense and for the sake of his own image and that of his wife and family.
Between 2012 and 2017, Mr. Netanyahu “intervened in a blatant and ongoing manner, and sometimes even daily,” in coverage at Walla, a news website owned by Bezeq, the police said. This ensured “flattering articles and pictures” were published and critical content about him and his family was removed.
The police said Mr. Netanyahu and his associates sought to sway Walla’s hiring of senior editors and reporters. In return, Mr. Netanyahu, who personally oversaw the communications ministry from 2014 to 2017, rewarded Bezeq with enormously lucrative concessions, the police said. Those included approval of its merger with Yes, a satellite television company, despite the objections of lower-level ministry officials.
The police said they had seized about $32 million from those involved during the investigation.
Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition in the Israeli Parliament and a former justice minister, called for immediate elections to replace Mr. Netanyahu.
“Bribery!” she wrote on Twitter. “Netanyahu has to go before he destroys the law enforcement authorities in order to save his own skin.”
Avi Gabbay, the leader of the center-left Labor Party and a former chief executive of Bezeq from 2007 to 2013, called on Mr. Netanyahu to resign.
“A prime minister with so many corruption scandals surrounding him cannot continue,” he said in a video. “A man motivated by such a sick obsession about what the media will say about him cannot lead Israel.”
But experts said a prime minister need not necessarily resign even if formally charged.
Abraham Diskin, professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the police recommendations were unlikely to change many minds: Mr. Netanyahu’s detractors would be satisfied, while his supporters would see further proof that he is being persecuted.
Mr. Diskin, echoing the prime minister, suggested that the police and news media were teaming up to blow the accusations out of proportion.
“Which politician does not try to sway the media?” Mr. Diskin said, adding that the allegations still had to be proven in a court of law.
The case was complex, involving a host of other suspects and dozens of witnesses. Besides Mr. Netanyahu, the police recommended on Sunday that his wife, Sara, be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, along with disruption of investigative and judicial proceedings.
The police also urged the indictment of others on a variety of charges, including Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq; his wife, Iris; their son, Or, an aide to his father and board member in some of their holdings; Stella Handler, chief executive of Bezeq; Amikam Shorer, a senior Bezeq officer; and Zeev Rubinstein, a businessman close to the Elovitch and Netanyahu families who is deputy chairman of the Israel Bonds corporation.
Mr. Netanyahu was already facing likely indictment in two other scandals. One case alleges that he accepted gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for potentially valuable political favors. Another involves an accusation that he negotiated with the publisher of Yediot Ahronot, a leading newspaper, for favorable coverage in exchange for using his influence to curtail a rival paper, Israel Hayom. In that case, the alleged deal never came to fruition.
The attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, once considered a Netanyahu loyalist, has indicated he was waiting for the completion of the investigation of the Bezeq case before making a decision on all three cases at once. An indictment could come only after Mr. Netanyahu is given a chance to argue against it at a hearing.
Sara Netanyahu is already on trial on fraud and breach of trust chargesover allegations that she improperly spent about $100,000 of public funds, hiring celebrity chefs to cater private meals while covering up the fact that the prime minister’s residence already employed a full-time cook.
In his response to the new police recommendations on Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu faulted what he called “the transparent timing of their publication.” Indeed, the announcement was something of a parting shot for Chief Roni Alsheich, whose term ends on Monday and whom Mr. Netanyahu has frequently attacked over the corruption investigations.
Mr. Netanyahu’s aid to Bezeq took several forms, the police said. Immediately after naming himself communications minister, he fired a top official who had been advancing reforms that would have opened up the market in which Bezeq enjoyed a monopoly. The man Mr. Netanyahu named to the post, Shlomo Filber, was later accused of passing Bezeq inside information. He eventually became a government witness.
Not long after, the government pushed through approval of the Bezeq-Yes merger on an accelerated timeline and over the objections of officials who questioned both the rush and the lack of consideration for the interests of consumers, according to an account in Haaretz.
The bribes Mr. Netanyahu is accused of receiving included puff pieces and pulled punches. Walla staff members interviewed for a recent Channel 10 documentary about the case told of being pressured and censored most intensively from 2015 to 2017.
Often, they said, the family’s image doctor, Nir Hefetz, who also turned state’s witness, was the person who channeled the Netanyahus’ demands.
Gali Ginat, a former court reporter, told of writing an article on new accusations that Mrs. Netanyahu had abused employees in the prime minister’s residence, claims widely reported by Walla’s competitors. But soon after it was published, her article disappeared, and she was told that the decision to remove it had come “from above.”
The news site was also forced to run as many as 10 photos of Mrs. Netanyahu to accompany short articles about her public appearances, employees said.
Avi Alkelai, the site’s former chief editor, recalled that after one Walla video interview with Mr. Netanyahu in which he came off “not bad,” Mr. Hefetz ordered it not be aired and demanded that Mr. Netanyahu be re-interviewed. Two top editors were said to have threatened to resign, and the interview was published. But it appeared high on the home page for only an hour or two before being lowered to a less-prominent position.
Mr. Netanyahu angrily disputed the Channel 10 report.
“The attempt to turn basic public relations into part of a bribery deal is ridiculous,” he said, adding that the Walla employees’ allegation “just proves the extent of the hostility of the site toward the prime minister and his wife.”
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, acknowledged that police recommendations did not always lead to indictments. But he suggested that it would be “very difficult” for Mr. Mandelblit to avoid criminal charges this time.
If the case involving the newspaper Yediot Ahronot “is about an ostensibly corrupt deal” for favorable media treatment that never went through, Mr. Plesner said, in the Bezeq case “ both ends of the transaction allegedly took place.”