(February 15, 2018 / JNS) A political and legal storm hit Israel Tuesday evening when Israeli police officials informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that they plan to recommend bribery and breach of trust charges in the two corruption cases against him.
Members of Netanyahu’s Likud party criticized the police recommendation while opposition members quickly jumped on the chance to call for Netanyahu’s resignation, announcing the end of the “Netanyahu era.”
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, told JNS that he believes a distinction must be made between the criminal and legal aspects of the affair, and the public moral, political and ethical aspects.
“From a criminal legal perspective, no charges have been pressed, and the prime minister is still innocent until proven guilty,” he affirmed.
The first case, referred to as Case 1000 by police investigators, involves allegations that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, received illegal gifts, including champagne and cigars.
The second case, known as Case 2000, involves a backroom deal in which Netanyahu allegedly agreed to scale back circulation of the Israel Hayom newspaper owned by billionaire Sheldon Adelson in exchange for more favorable coverage by Arnon Mozes, owner of rival Yediot Ahronot.
In a press conference immediately following the police announcement, Netanyahu defended himself against the charges, claiming that, like other failed attempts in the past accusing him of wrongdoing, this would also fail because “there is nothing” to the claims, and that the accusations are “full of holes like Swiss cheese.”
“All my life, I worked toward one goal, to secure Israel and its future . . . this is what burns within me always as the prime minister of Israel,” he said, adding “ . . . the only thing that interests me is the good of the country, not for cigars, not for press coverage.
“ . . I am again reiterating the obvious fact: These recommendations have no position in a democratic rule . . . According to the law, it is not the police who decide, but rather only the legal bodies . . . I am sure that when the legitimate legal bodies look at the material, they will see these recommendations are overblown . . . These are crazy, made-up notions against me.”
‘Can he function under pressure’?
Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid party, was named as a central witness in one of the investigations. He has come under fire from some Likud members for trying to bring down the coalition by going to the police. In a video press release on Wednesday, Lapid said, “A few months ago, the police asked me to come and give evidence in Case 1000. Like any law-abiding citizen who is asked by the police to help them get to the truth, I went and answered all their questions . . . I work for the citizens of Israel. Only for them. Not for any tycoon and not for the interests of any politician . . . I, like the prime minister, would prefer to challenge him at the polls. It is a sad day for every citizen when the prime minister of Israel is accused of serious criminal offenses.”
Having said that, he continued, “the prime minister must exhibit national responsibility . . . For the good of the citizens of Israel, the prime minister needs to vacate his post. I call upon the Attorney General to speed up, as much as possible, the process and decision of whether to indict or not.”
Professor Abraham Diskin, an Israeli political scientist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, told JNS that for now, the law is on Netanyahu’s side, though precedents exist to the contrary.
A number of factors need to be taken into consideration, he said. “First is the prime minister’s personality. Can he function under pressure? For the time being, this won’t affect his ability to function as prime minister. He is not going to give up or resign.”
Diskin said he believes that politically, the government is stable, a vote of no confidence does not seem likely, and Netanyahu is safe—at least, for now. “It seems that all the coalition partners are united, and most have an interest not to cause any coalition or governmental crisis. The only exception, perhaps, is the Jewish Home party” led by Minister of Education Naftali Bennett “because it could gain votes as a result of this,” he said.
Plesner, however, made a point that “with regard to the public, moral, political and ethical implications, I think the fact that there is no dispute around the factual foundations of this case, i.e., the prime minister received gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years—this alone should lead public figures, including those in the opposition, to declare that this is unacceptable.”
“Regarding the criminality of his conduct,” he said, “we cannot accept a situation where public officials, let alone the No. 1 public official, allow themselves to receive gifts on such a massive scale. This runs the risk of corrupting our public agencies and therefore should be condemned.”
Nevertheless, Diskin noted that there is no country in the world where its leader must resign if indicted only. “Many people say he should resign right now, but the main point of time for this to be considered is when the attorney general decides to indict him. If he is convicted in a final verdict by the Supreme Court, that is when he should step down. The final word is with the judiciary.”
According to Diskin, “there will be a real political earthquake if the attorney general does decide to indict him.”