The Netanyahu investigations

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ON DECEMBER 2nd Israel’s police recommended the indictment of Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The recommendations,  which have no legal significance by themselves, apply to seven further suspects, including the prime minister’s wife, Sara. They conclude an investigation known as the Bezeq Case, or Case 4000, that was carried out by the police and the Israel Securities Authority, and have been passed on to the State Prosecutor’s office, which will give its own recommendation to the attorney-general’s office.

Since late 2016 Mr Netanyahu, his family and his associates have been the subjects of a series of criminal investigations. Police have recommended indictments in three of them. Case 1000 concerns supposedly illegal gifts of champagne, Cuban cigars and jewellery, worth one million shekels ($270,000), given to the Netanyahus. Case 2000 concerns allegations that Mr Netanyahu discussed helping a newspaper publisher by curbing the circulation of a competitor in exchange for favourable coverage. And Case 4000 concerns interventions in regulatory decisions that Mr Netanyahu allegedly made on behalf of the owner of Bezeq, a telecoms giant, in return for favourable coverage on Israel’s largest website, which is owned by Bezeq. Mr Netanyahu is not regarded as a suspect in Case 3000 (“the Submarines Case”), which involves alleged bribery in military procurement, though police have recommended indicting a number of his aides, including his lawyer (who is also his cousin). Sara Netanyahu is already on trial for alleged fraud relating to catering expenses at the prime minister’s official residence.

Mr Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing in all cases. He claims that the gifts were “between friends” and that none of his dealings with media owners went beyond the normal interactions between politicians and press barons. He has accused the police of carrying out a witch hunt and insists the allegations will not remove him from office. For now, at least, he is politically secure. His own Likud party is backing him, and the other parties in the ruling coalition seem prepared to reserve judgment. The police recommendations, moreover, do not seem to have damaged his public standing. According to the polls, he is on track to win elections next year. 

The prime minister’s fate is in the hands of the attorney-general, Avichai Mandelblit. A meticulous civil servant, he will assess the police findings and the recommendations of his own team. Mr Mandelblit is expected to present an initial charge sheet against the prime minister in early 2019, but he will then hold lengthy hearings for all suspects, before reaching a decision on indictments. The severity of the police recommendations would appear to make both a decision not to indict and the offer of a plea bargain in return for Mr Netanyahu’s resignation unlikely. But if Mr Mandelblit does indeed take Mr Netanyahu to court, Israel will face a constitutional conundrum. The law is unclear on whether an indicted prime minister can remain in office. Mr Netanyahu has said in private that he would stay on if indicted, a move that would certainly be challenged in the High Court. If he is indicted, coalition members or High Court judges could perhaps force him to resign. Failing that, Israel will be treated to the spectacle of a prime minister running the country while on trial for corruption.

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