Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced Thursday that he planned to file charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The charges cannot officially go forward until a hearing where Netanyahu can contest the accusations, which might not happen until long after the April 9 elections. Netanyahu has denied the allegations against him and claims that the media and government officials — including Mandelblit, whom he personally appointed — have a vendetta against him.
This is the first time a sitting Israeli prime minister has faced criminal charges. But Netanyahu is not alone in having been dogged with accusations of corruption — in fact, each of the last four prime ministers have at some point been under criminal investigation.
The most recent report of the corruption watchdog organization Transparency International gave Israel a 61 out of 100 — 34th place in the world, but dropping each of the past two years. (The United States scored 22nd with a score of 71.)
Supporters of Israel say that frequent investigations of prominent politicians show the country’s commitment to the rule of law. But detractors argue that such investigations showcase the frequency of illicit behavior in the first place.
Here’s a brief history of investigations against some of the most prominent political figures in Israel’s history:
The planned charges against Netanyahu are related to three police investigations.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is accused of accepting over 1 million shekels ($275,000) in lavish gifts, including cigars, champagne and jewelry, from Israeli-American Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer, in exchange for political favors. Netanyahu says there’s nothing wrong with accepting gifts from his friends, but denies that any government actions they may have benefited from were connected to the gifts.
In Case 2000, police acquired an audio recording of Netanyahu telling Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the major newspaper Yediot Achronot, that he could try to limit the circulation of a competitor, the Sheldon Adelson-owned Yisrael Hayom, in exchange for Yediot providing more favorable coverage of him. That recording was allegedly made by former Netanyahu chief of staff Ari Harow, who turned state’s witness in response to a separate fraud investigation against him. Both Netanyahu and Mozes have claimed that they were both trying to “test” each other.
In Case 4000, Netanyahu is accused of making decisions to benefit Bezeq, the nation’s largest telecommunications company, in exchange for more positive coverage on a Bezeq-owned news website, Walla. Netanyahu argues that any policies made to benefit Bezeq were reasonable decisions, and has pointed out that Walla continued to publish anti-Netanyahu op-eds.
Netanyahu served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009 until today. Other corruption investigations against him, in 2000 and 2011, were closed without charges being filed. Netanyahu was also heavily criticized in 2013 for alleged lavish spending on his official residences, including a nearly $3,000 ice cream budget.
Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem, served as Prime Minister from 2006 until he resigned in 2009 after the police recommended he be indicted on bribery and money-laundering charges. He was convicted of granting favors to a former law partner while serving as trade minister, accepting bribes from a luxury apartment developer while serving as mayor, and accepting around $600,000 in cash-filled envelopes from an American businessman. He ended up serving 16 months of a 27-month prison sentence.
Ariel Sharon & Ehud Barak
Barak, prime minister from 1999 to 2001, and Sharon, who served from 2001 until he was incapacitated by a stroke in 2006, were both the subjects of police investigations while in office — Barak for an alleged illegal campaign finance scheme, and Sharon for accepting bribes to help with a casino project in Greece. In both cases, prosecutors decided there was not enough evidence to indict — though Sharon’s son Omri was convicted of fraud in 2006 for illegal actions in relation to his father’s party primary campaign.
Rabin is most well-known among American Jews for his 1992-1995 tenure as prime minister, when he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his pursuit of peace with the Palestinians. But Rabin had previously served as prime minister from 1974-1977, when his term was cut short by an unlikely scandal. During Rabin’s term as ambassador to the United States from 1968-1973, his wife opened a bank account in Washington. At the time, it was illegal for Israeli citizens to have bank accounts abroad. Rabin resigned as Prime Minister after Israeli journalists uncovered the bank account, though no charges were ever filed.
Moshe Katsav served as the president of Israel, a largely ceremonial position, from 2000 to 2007, when he resigned after multiple women accused him of rape and sexual harassment. Katsav was convicted on two counts of rape, as well as obstruction of justice and other charges, and was sentenced to seven years in prison, of which he served five.
Convicted ministers and rabbis
Many other leading Israeli politicians have been convicted of corruption-related crimes — some of whom still serve in office today, like Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi, who pleaded guilty in 2010 to perjury, and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who was sentenced to three years in prison in 2000 for taking $155,000 in bribes.
Two former Chief Rabbis of Israel have also been convicted: Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, found guilty of fraud in 2017 for giving out fake rabbinic ordinations, and Yona Metzger, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to bribery and tax fraud.
Perhaps the most unusual criminal case involving an Israeli politician concerned Shmuel Flatto-Sharon, a Polish-born businessman who fled to Israel in 1975 after being charged by French authorities with embezzling $60 million. Members of the Knesset are not allowed to be extradited, so Flatto-Sharon ran for office two years later with the explicit purpose of gaining that immunity. Despite being a one-man party, he got enough votes to earn two seats in the Knesset. While in office, he worked to tighten Israel’s extradition laws. He was later sentenced to three months of community service for buying votes. After leaving politics, Flatto-Sharon became a successful radio talk show host.