The bombshell announcement by Israeli police Tuesday, recommending two charges of bribery against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has set off a process that could lead to a dramatic change in Israel’s political landscape.
Netanyahu, who has been serving as prime minister since 2009, forcefully rejected the claims, arguing the allegations against him are “false and ungrounded” and that police recommendations “have no weight in a democratic society.” But the legal process that has kicked off may, in fact, carry a lot of weight when determining Netanyahu’s political, and personal, future.
Here are a few points to watch when following the news unfold:
What Happens Next?
According to Israel’s criminal process, criminal investigations are carried out by the national police, which summarizes its conclusions in a set of recommendations, just as it did with Netanyahu on Tuesday. These recommendations will now be reviewed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who was appointed by Netanyahu but has increasingly shown his independence. Mandelblit must now decide whether to approve the recommendations and proceed with the indictment. Netanyahu’s lawyers will get a chance to respond before charges are formally pressed. This process could take 2-4 months. If Netanyahu is indicted, the case will be heard in a district court. If found guilty, Netanyahu is expected to appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court. This entire process can easily take a year or two.
Does Netanyahu Have To Resign?
No. Israeli law does not require the prime minister to resign after a police recommendation, nor does he have to step down after being formally charged. However, if Mandelblit presses charges, Netanyahu may be forced out by his coalition partners, as was the case with his predecessor Ehud Olmert.
Hollywood Producer Arnon Milchan Is A Key Figure
Milchan, the Israeli-born Hollywood producer behind films like “Pretty Woman,” “L.A. Confidential” and “12 Years a Slave,” is a longtime friend of Israeli leaders and once moonlighted as an arms dealer doing clandestine work to help Israel’s nuclear program. But Milchan’s decision in 2013 to open up about his undercover past made U.S. immigration authorities uneasy, and when Milchan’s residency permit expired, he was denied a new visa.
This leads to the quid-pro-quo allegations. Milchan provided Netanyahu and his wife with crates of champagne, expensive jewelry and Cuban cigars, amounting to more than $200,000 in value over 10 years. In return, the police allege, Netanyahu brought up Milchan’s visa issue (unsuccessfully) with American officials. Back in Israel, Netanyahu also pushed (unsuccessfully, again) for the passage of legislation that would have given Milchan a major tax break when he returned to Israel, and allegedly also tried to help out with other business deals that would benefit Milchan.
Netanyahu claims that a box of cigars or a case of champagne are legitimate gifts from a close friend. The police argue that it’s not a gift if Netanyahu asked for them. At a certain point, police say, Netanyahu’s gifts became so costly that Milchan couldn’t cover them on his own, and brought in Australian billionaire James Packer (Mariah Carey’s ex-fiancee) to help provide the cigars and champagne to the prime minister’s residence.
Sheldon Adelson’s Testimony May Have Screwed His Longtime Ally
Netanyahu’s other bribery case involves a series of meetings he held with Arnon Mozes, the powerful publisher of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot. In these conversations, which were secretly recorded, Netanyahu and Mozes discussed a deal: Mozes would ensure positive coverage of the prime minister; in return, Netanyahu would curb the circulation of Israel Hayom, Yediot’s major competitorf — which is owned by Adelson. The deal never came to fruition, but according to the police, Netanyahu did reach out to Adelson, asking him to limit the circulation of his paper, especially on weekends.
How do the police know that? They heard it directly from Adelson, who was questioned during one of his visits to Israel. If the case reaches court, Adelson is likely to be called to testify against Netanyahu, who is not only a personal friend but also a beneficiary of Adelson’s largesse.
Yair Lapid’s Surprising Role
While much of the information regarding Netanyahu’s investigation was leaked during months of endless rounds of questioning, Israeli police left one surprise for decision day: Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party and Netanyahu’s main political rival, is a key witness for the prosecution. It turns out that Lapid, who served as Netanyahu’s finance minister from 2013-2014, told the police about Netanyahu’s attempts to advance the “Milchan Law,” which would have given Milchan a major tax break. Lapid and the professionals at the finance ministry argued against the bill, while Netanyahu kept on trying to advance it, allegedly in order to help his friend and cigar-supplier. By doing so, the police argued, Netanyahu acted “against public interests.”
Who’s In Line To Replace Bibi?
Netanyahu’s long years in office have produced a generation of frustrated politicians seeking Israel’s top position. In the Likud, Yisrael Katz, currently serving as transportation minister, and Gideon Saar, who is currently outside the Knesset, have made no secret of their ambition to take over for Netanyahu if and when he steps down.
His rivals from the outside are also ready to charge: Lapid may find himself in the unusual situation of testifying against Netanyahu in court and then claiming his office when election time arrives. The Labor Party and its new leader, Avi Gabbay, are also hoping for another chance if the Netanyahu era comes to an end, as do Netanyahu’s right-wing partners Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman, each feeling he can win elections if Netanyahu is forced out.
But, at least for now, Bibi isn’t going anywhere.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.