Police report looms over Netanyahu re-election bid
Attorney general to decide if Israeli PM should stand trial
JERUSALEM — Israeli police on Sunday recommended indicting Prime Minister on bribery charges, adding to a growing collection of legal troubles that have clouded the longtime leader’s prospects for pursuing re-election next year.
Netanyahu denied the latest allegations. But his fate now lies in the hands of his attorney general, who will decide in the coming months whether the prime minister should stand trial on a host of corruption allegations that could play a central role in next year’s election campaign.
In a scathing attack on police investigators in a speech on Sunday, Netanyahu called the investigation a “witch hunt” that was “tainted from the start.”
“Israel is a law-abiding country. And in a law-abiding country police recommendations have no legal weight,” he told his Likud party at a Hannukah candle-lighting ceremony. Most of his half-hour holiday speech went to dismissing the allegations, and the crowd of hundreds of party members rallied behind him.
Sunday’s decision followed a lengthy investigation into a case involving Netanyahu’s relationship with Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Israel’s telecom giant Bezeq.
Police said they found sufficient evidence that confidants of Netanyahu promoted regulatory changes worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Bezeq. In exchange, they believe Netanyahu used his connections with Elovitch to receive positive press coverage on Bezeq’s popular news site Walla.
In a statement, police said the investigation concluded that Netanyahu and Elovitch engaged in a “bribe-based relationship.”
Police said they believed there was sufficient evidence to charge Netanyahu and his wife Sara with accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust. They also recommended charges be brought against Elovitch, members of his family and members of his Bezeq management team.
Police have already recommended indicting Netanyahu on corruption charges in two other cases. One involves accepting gifts from billionaire friends, and the second revolves around alleged offers of advantageous legislation for a major newspaper in return for favourable coverage.
The prime minister has denied any wrongdoing.
“The police recommendations regarding me and my wife don’t surprise anyone,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “These recommendations were decided upon and leaked even before the investigation began.”
The police recommendations do not have any immediate impact on Netanyahu. They go to his hand-picked attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, who will review the material and make the final decision on whether to press charges.
That decision will have a great impact on Netanyahu’s future. Israeli law is unclear about whether an indicted prime minister would have to step down. But at the minimum, a trial would put great pressure on Netanyahu, who has been in office for nearly a decade, to step aside.
Israel must hold its next election by November 2019. But Israeli governments rarely last their full terms.
Netanyahu last month was nearly forced to call elections after a key partner withdrew from his coalition to protest a ceasefire with the Hamas militant group in Gaza. Netanyahu now leads a coalition with a razor-thin 61 seat majority in the 120-seat parliament.
With his Likud party firmly behind him and his remaining coalition partners remaining silent, there does not seem to be any immediate threat to the government.
Mandelblit’s office has not said when he will issue his decision. Most analysts expect him to take several months to review the material.
Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Hebrew University, said Netanyahu will likely try to push forward elections before Mandelblit decides whether to indict. Netanyahu holds a solid lead in all opinion polls, and a victory would make it more difficult for Mandelblit to indict and potentially force out a re-elected leader.