It was the curveball that had been expected during the Israeli election campaign, but still managed to surprise.
Charges progress against Netanyahu
Six weeks out from the April 9 polling day, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelbilt announced Benjamin Netanyahu could face charges relating to bribery and fraud in three separate cases.
This does not only leave the current election frontrunner with suspicions around his conduct, but it creates an unprecedented situation where an incumbent Prime Minister is battling serious charges.
It also shakes up the already turbulent Israeli political landscape.
The most recent opinion poll – and it is worth noting that opinion polling in Israel is fickle this far out from an election – indicated voters would likely desert Netanyahu’s Likud Party, if he were charged, in sufficient numbers to give a win to the opposition Blue and White alliance.
But Netanyahu will not quit politics nor take a step back to fight the charges.
In an impassioned speech on Thursday night, he called the charges politically motivated and said they were being agitated for by the left who know they could not defeat him in the election.
“There are rules for everyone, and other rules for Netanyahu and the Likud. This whole house of cards will fall,” the Prime Minister said.
It is a rough call given he personally appointed Mandelbilt to the position of Attorney General.
Netanyahu is not legally compelled to step down unless convicted and after having exhausted all appeals. However, the situation is difficult for Netanyahu, his party and the voting public. The timing of Mandelbilt’s indictment has been much scrutinised, coming as it does in the midst of an election campaign. How it impacts voters remains to be seen.
Coalition shake up
Other political parties, including Benny Gantz’s Blue and White (“Kachol Lavan”) party and Labor, announced that given the possible charges, they would not enter any coalition negotiations with Netanyahu should he win enough seats to be asked to lead the next government. This is particularly significant, since it reversed statements from earlier in the week by Blue and White’s Yair Lapid that the party had intended to form a coalition with Likud after the election.
Representatives from Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party have indicated that they would enter negotiations with Netanyahu, pending the result of the election, but if Netanyahu were actually formally charged, they would break any coalition agreement previously formed.
All this means that, after the election, Netanyahu would only have the option of forming a narrow right-wing coalition – with no centre or centre-left representatives.
Aussie link in one case
The charges, which have been poured over in great detail, relate to three cases, known as Case 1000, Case 2000 and Case 4000.
The one of most interest to Australian audiences is Case 1000 because it involves Netanyahu’s dealings with one of Australia’s top businessmen James Packer, as well as Israeli-American movie producer Arnon Milchan.
Packer, who is not Jewish and has no family ties to Israel, lives part-time in Israel. Mandelbilt’s indictment alleges Netanyahu received gifts worth more than $100,000 from Packer, including the use of Packer’s Israeli home in Caeserea.
Packer had been called as a witness in the case and was interviewed by the Australian Federal Police acting for Israeli authorities.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is accused of conflict of interest, fraudulent behaviour and abuse of trust. Mandelbilt’s indictment said these gifts were given to him “to lever your public position as prime minister” including to help Milchan extend his US visa and to create favourable tax conditions for him. There are no similar claims regarding Packer and at no time was it recommended that he be charged with any crime. Packer denies seeking anything in return and said the gifts to Netanyahu were a gesture of friendship.
What of the others?
In Case 2000, Netanyahu could be charged with breach of trust over his alleged collusion with one newspaper editor to use his position as head of the government to bring down a rival in exchange for favourable coverage. However, the legislative changes required to bring down the rival newspaper were never enacted, despite strong Knesset support from more than 40 MKs, not only Netanyahu.
The charges against Netanyahu in the next case, Case 4000, are bribery related. Netanyahu is accused of making decisions that benefitted communications tsar Shaul Elovitch in exchange for positive news coverage on the Elovitch-owned, popular Walla website. Mandelbilt claims that Netanyahu’s interference personally benefited Elovitch to the tune of around US$700 million.
The coming days and weeks
Mandelbilt’s announcement foreshadows a criminal case that has a long way to run. A final decision about whether to file formal indictments is not expected until early 2020.
The Israeli legal process will see the Attorney General’s office hold pre-trial hearings in which Netanyahu’s lawyers will try to dissuade Mandelbilt from laying charges. Those hearings won’t take place until after the election.
Avi Bell, a legal professor at Bar Ilan University – and others, including prominent American legal expert Alan Dershowitz – agree with Netanyahu that the charges are likely politically motivated and could therefore lead to a dangerous precedent in Israeli political life.
In an open letter to Mandelblit, Dershowitz wrote “Such charges would open up a Pandora’s box out of which would flow a parade of horribles: Every government official – legislators, judges, prosecutors, police officers, administrators – who sought positive coverage with the media, and then did anything that helped the media, would have to be investigated.”
Others say Mandelblit has acted correctly.
David Horovitz, writing for the Times of Israel wrote:
Netanyahu essentially argues that Mandelblit, in the very act of announcing the intention to indict, has now already denied him the political presumption of innocence, and in so doing has skewed the elections. The attorney general has had his say, runs Netanyahu’s assertion, but since the hearing process cannot possibly be completed by the time Israel votes on April 9, the prime minister’s side of the argument will not be comparably known.
This is a tendentious claim: For one thing, Netanyahu has taken great pains, including via live TV broadcast, to present central aspects of his defense to the public. For another, it was he who chose to bring elections forward from their scheduled date in November. But it is not a claim to be casually dismissed.
Yediot Ahronot columnist Nahum Barnea was solidly in Mandelblit’s corner. (Translated from the original Hebrew):
I believe Mandelbilt. I believe him because during the two years in which the investigation into Netanyahu’s files has been unfolding, no evidence has been presented that indicates a bias of justice … I believe Mandelblit came to his decisions after an orderly process, having studied 1,800 pages of material, after listening to hundreds of tapes and listening to the conclusions of each of the lawyers involved in the process. [That said], this does not mean that his decisions are immune to criticism.
Other election-related developments this week
- Also in the Blue and White leader Benny Gantz was the subject of allegations of sexual misconduct as a teenager. Gantz vehemently denied the allegations on February 27, calling them “political libel”, and threatened to sue the accuser.
- Israel’s Central Elections Board is weighing a petition to ban the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party – part of the “Union of Right Wing Parties” merger with the Jewish Home and National Union parties – on grounds of racism. Another petition is reportedly being waged against the Arab party Balad for their alleged extremism
- Under intense criticism and pressure, the Likud removed from social media a video attacking Blue and White’s Benny Gantz that had been controversially filmed in a military cemetery.
- Naftali Bennett’s New Right party called for the Trump Administration to release its Israel-Palestinian peace plan before the election under the slogan “Let our People Know”. Bennett warned that the plan would threaten Israel’s security.
- Labor and the left-wing Meretz party are reportedly signing a vote-sharing agreement that may help either party get another seat by using the other party’s surplus vote.
Ahron Shapiro contributed to this report.