After 12 years running the region’s most powerful and economically dynamic nation, the reign of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suffered a major blow in recent days as mounting legal pressure enveloping him, his wife and close associates on charges of corruption and fraud have some Israelis pondering the prospect of a post-Netanyahu future.
Multiple conspiratorial cases of legal scandals involving the Netanyahus have gone from background noise to the forefront in the past few days since investigations in four cases began months — or even years — ago.
The combative, conservative Mr. Netanyahu is one of the world’s longest-serving leaders and has secured his grip on power domestically, uniting a coalition government and a nation behind his vision of a secure and prosperous Israel that is not shy about pressing its own national interests.
Neither war nor terrorism has threatened his power — they may actually have strengthened it — but his single-minded desire to retain and strengthen his power and influence by any means may now threaten to initiate his downfall.
“The suspicions of corruption against [the prime minister] are reaching a critical mass, casting a pall over his continued tenure in office,” the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, a frequent critic of Mr. Netanyahu, wrote in its lead editorial Monday.
Israeli law enforcement and officials are nearing a potential indictment against the prime minister, and despite no law in the country compelling his resignation, public pressure could force Mr. Netanyahu to step down as premier, initiate a shake-up among his Likud party and possibly send the country to early elections.
In light of recent developments — most notably Mr. Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, turning state witness in corruption cases against the prime minister — Likud party members have expressed support for the prime minister and even announced a rally for Mr. Netanyahu to be held in the coming days.
Mr. Netanyahu has vehemently denied the charges against him, posting a statement on his public Facebook page condemning the allegations and saying the investigation is doomed.
“There will be nothing, because there was nothing,” the post read in Hebrew.
If public pressure mounts, Mr. Netanyahu could offer to step down amid the controversy, leading to political jockeying in his own party for who would succeed him as prime minister. Gilad Erdan, the public security and information minister, is the second in the Likud hierarchy.
Another scenario is the government could move toward a vote of no confidence in November, when lawmakers return from an extended summer recess, political analyst Gil Hoffman wrote in The Jerusalem Post. That could set into motion early elections for 2018, a year ahead of schedule.
The fall of Mr. Netanyahu would also provide an opening for the leaders of main political ideologies fighting against the entrenched establishment and one another.
These include Naftali Bennet of the right-wing Jewish Home party, Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party and Avi Gabby, who would represent the joint left-wing Zionist Union, a coalition between Israel’s left-wing Labor Party and the smaller “Movement” party led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process stalled and gains made between Mr. Netanyahu’s government and the Palestinian Authority and Jordan on water and electricity issues, the Israeli public could continue to favor the conservatives, electing parties that put security first and expand, or at least further legitimize, Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Scandals gaining traction
Among the legal scandals gaining traction, local media reported Monday that the Israeli attorney general will seek an indictment against the prime minister’s wife, Sarah Netanyahu, in a case involving questions over the use of government funds amounting to tens of thousands of dollars.
Also on Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of an Israeli investigative journalist in a lawsuit filed against the prime minister’s office over the refusal to release call logs between Mr. Netanyahu and American billionaire businessman Sheldon Adelson, who is a close friend of the prime minister.
“The public interest in revealing the information overrides the right to privacy,” the lead judge in the case wrote in the decision, as reported by Haaretz.
Mr. Adelson is the owner of the free daily newspaper Israel Hayom, generally regarded as pro-Netanyahu and the subject of a debate in the Israeli government of whether or not the paper should be allowed to be distributed for free. This debate also finds itself among the details of the Case 2000, an investigation against Mr. Netanyahu into charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Last week, police requested a gag order on details of their efforts to recruit Mr. Harow as a state witness. In the gag order request, Israel police didn’t mention Mr. Netanyahu by name as a suspect, but did say that Mr. Harow’s statements would be used in both cases and for the first time named the explicit charges.
“This is the first time police mentioned the actual offense,” said Tal Schneider, a leading Israeli political commentator and journalist. “The name of the prime minster wasn’t on the warrant, but because in one of those cases he is the only suspect, people immediately understood that bribery refers to him.”
Mr. Netanyahu is embroiled in two investigations that allege he directly received bribes in exchange for political favors. The first case charges he and his wife accepted lavish gifts in return for favors. The charges include gifts including cigars, champagne and jewelry from such figures as Hollywood film producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.
The second case involves alleged dealings between Mr. Netanyahu and Israeli publisher Arnon Mozes. In exchange for fair or positive coverage in Mr. Mozes’ newspaper, the case alleges, the prime minister would support legislation that would curb the distribution of the free newspaper Israel Hayom, which is owned by Mr. Adelson.
It was reported that Mr. Harow offered himself as a state witness in exchange for a lighter sentence in his own court case that charged his business and financial dealings benefited from his position with the prime minister.
The gag order, in place until Sept. 17, prevents the press from reporting on details provided by Mr. Harow, which include potential audiotape recordings of meetings between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Mozes.
The existence of such tapes came to public light in January, first reported by Israel’s Channel 2 investigative program. The leaked tapes allegedly record Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Mozes discussing favorable coverage in exchange for reigning in Israel Hayom. Police reportedly took the audio from the cellphone and computer of Mr. Harow.
More details of the evidence in the cases against Mr. Netanyahu would be made available with the issuance of an indictment, which could take place shortly after the gag order lifts.
“Once the attorney general lays down an indictment, he has to provide the facts,” Ms. Schneider said. “This is totally different, because then the public can read whatever the prime minister is facing, and I think that once you see an indictment, this will cause a public outrage and public shock.”
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