Israel’s prime minister still hopes to lead Likud into another election
OVER THE past two decades Israel’s legal establishment has proven itself capable of holding even the most powerful to account. A former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was convicted of bribery and fraud and served time in prison. An ex-president, Moshe Katsav, was jailed for rape. But on November 21st state prosecutors took on their biggest challenge yet, charging Binyamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister and Israel’s longest-serving leader, with the crimes of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Mr Netanyahu is the first sitting prime minister to be indicted (Mr Olmert was already out of office when charged). Understanding the gravity of the situation, the police and justice ministry took four years to investigate his alleged crimes, deliberate over them and hold pre-trial hearings in which the prime minister’s lawyers were able to present his defence. In the end Avichai Mendelblit, the attorney-general and Mr Netanyahu’s former cabinet secretary, said he had reached the decision with “a heavy, but whole heart”.
The charges stem from three cases. The most serious is Case 4000, in which Mr Netanyahu is accused of having intervened in media regulation on behalf of Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecoms company. In return he demanded and received favourable coverage on a popular news website owned by the company. Mr Netanyahu, along with Bezeq’s former chairman and his wife, were charged with bribery. The prime minister was also charged with fraud and breach of trust in the case.
The second case, known as Case 2000, is similar and highlights Mr Netanyahu’s obsession with the press. He is accused of conspiring with a newspaper publisher who promised glowing coverage if the prime minister pushed through a law that would have hurt a competing rag. The deal never came off, but Mr Netanyahu was again charged with fraud and breach of trust in the case.
In the third case, known as Case 1000, Mr Netanyahu is accused of receiving gifts worth $200,000 from two businessmen in return for various political favours. Again he was similarly charged with fraud and breach of trust.
Despite it all, Mr Netanyahu says he has no intention of stepping down. The law does not explicitly require him to do so. But many Israelis question his ability to run the government while mounting his defence, and note the potential conflicts of interest that come with his power over the justice ministry and the police. His decision to remain in office is therefore likely to be challenged in court.
Before going on trial Mr Netanyahu will probably face a different kind of fight. Israel is in political gridlock after two successive elections, in April and September, failed to produce a government. If no member of the Knesset (parliament) is able to form a government by December 11th, Israelis will go back to the polls. Mr Netanyahu intends to be in that race as leader of his right-wing Likud party, despite his weakening position and murmurings of rebellion on his backbenches. A lot is on the line, as the prime minister wants his allies in the Knesset to grant him immunity from prosecution.
Responding to the indictments, Mr Netanyahu promised to continue leading the country “for the rule of law and for justice and for the good of the state.” But he also lashed out at the police and the state prosecutor’s office, accusing them of trying to carry out “a constitutional coup” and demanding that the investigators be investigated. “This is an attempted overthrow of a prime minister with a biased investigation,” he said.
Mr Netanyahu’s rhetoric was strikingly similar to that used by President Donald Trump, who is fighting his own battle against impeachment in America. Both men embody the politics of nationalism, chauvinism and the resentment of elites. And both appear ready to sow division and damage institutions in order to hang on to power.