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As Charges Mount, Israeli PM Refuses to Step Down

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) speaks to the press while being accompanied by Major General Yoel Strick (L), commander of the Israeli army’s northern command, on December 11, 2018. Photo AFP

“There have been prime ministers who have resigned for much less,” said Shlomo Avineri, a professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to The New York Times. For example, Ehud Olmert stepped down in 2009 following corruption charges. He was eventually convicted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, refuses to step down despite at least three serious allegations of corruption and fraud having been made against him. In early December, Israeli police said they had found enough evidence for bribery and fraud charges to be brought against him. In this third case in a year, the PM stands accused of making a deal with Bezeq. In exchange for some regulatory favours, the vast telecommunications firm promised to write positively about Netanyahu on its popular news website Walla!

In all three instances, it is up to the attorney general – Netanyahu appointee Avichai Mandelblit – to decide whether to indict the leader. If he does, Netanyahu will become Israel’s first sitting prime minister to be indicted. Predecessors like Olmert stepped down before criminal prosecution.

However, there is no clear rule that obliges Netanyahu to leave office during the investigation. He likely won’t. Most pundits predict he will at least hold onto power until the next general elections, which must be held before November 2019. In those elections, Netanyahu will seek a renewed mandate from his voters. A win would give him significant leverage. Being strong enough politically would allow him to try to remain in office, even while being prosecuted. If he succeeds, he will surpass David Ben-Gurion as the longest serving prime minister.

Of course, he has yet to win. After a one-day war in Gaza last November, he was accused by the education (Naftali Bennett) and justice ministers (Ayelet Shaked), both of the far-right Jewish Home party, of taking a lacklustre approach to the conflict. Why, Bennett and Shaked asked, didn’t Netanyahu wipe Hamas entirely off the map? Bennett even went so far as to demand to be appointed defence minister, after Avigdor Lieberman resigned from the post, taking his Yisrael Beytenu party with him and leaving the coalition with a fragile majority.

Netanyahu saved his image by giving an impassioned speech in which he emphasized the need to keep this coalition, ‘the most right-wing coalition in Israeli history’, together. He also called it “irresponsible” to try to topple the government at such a complex time for national security. In early December, he asserted that Hezbollah had dug several tunnels under the Lebanese border, a move The New York Times compared to the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, in which a political candidate invents a war to distract from his personal predicament.

With the speech, Netanyahu managed to win back public trust. Moreover, he managed to keep the Defence Ministry for himself. Besides prime minister and minister of defence, Netanyahu is also minister of foreign affairs and health.
The first case in which the police advised Mandelblit to prosecute Netanyahu involved his acceptance of hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from billionaires, who received political favours in return. In the second case, Netanyahu offered the publisher of the large newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth to push legislation harming the free pro-Netanyahu newspaper – and Yedioth’s main competitor – Israel Hayom. In exchange, Netanyahu allegedly demanded more flattering and positive coverage in Yedioth.

The police report shows a prime minister who is obsessed with his image. In the Bezeq case, Netanyahu is said to have ‘intervened in a blatant and ongoing manner, and sometimes even daily’ in the way Walla! covered him. Not only did he make sure flattering articles and images were published, he also demanded the removal of critical content about him and his family. He even had a say in the editors Walla! hired. In exchange, according to the police, Bezeq was rewarded with lucrative deals.

It is safe to assume there was no press freedom at Walla! during the prime minister’s involvement. For example, the former court reporter Gali Ginat complained that an article she wrote about Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, abusing her employees disappeared soon after it had been published. When she asked what had happened, she was told it was a decision ‘from above’. Another example is the demand to run as many as ten photos of the prime minister’s wife with every article – even short ones – about her public appearances.

Netanyahu had a high degree of involvement in internal Bezeq issues as well. For example, after he named himself minister of communications – yet another ministry he led for a while – he fired one of its top officials. This particular official had been advancing reforms to end Bezeq’s monopoly in the telecommunications market. According to Haaretz, the government also pushed through the approval of the Bezeq-Yes merger, over the objections of officials.

In addition to the allegations against the prime minister, the police recommended that Sara Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud, breach of trust and disruption of investigative and judicial proceedings. One of the charges against her is that she used public money to hire celebrity chefs to cook dinner, even though the prime minister’s residence was already employing a full-time cook.

Following President Trump’s playbook, Netanyahu calls the allegations a “witch hunt” against him. All he did was “public relations”, he claimed. The testimonies of the former Walla! employees only prove the website’s hostility towards him, Netanyahu told The New York Times.

However, according to experts, the Bezeq case in particular should lead to indictment. It is the case in which both ends of the transaction – the advantages for the company and the influencing of news coverage – can be proven. If Netanyahu is indicted, the interesting question will be: will he ever quit?

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