Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been indicted on charges relating to corruption and bribery, per a Thursday announcement by Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
The charges are serious, relating to three cases of financial and political misconduct, and carry the possibility of jail time. This is not an idle threat: Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert got wrapped up in a bribery scandal during his time in office in the late 2000s and eventually served over a year in prison.
This indictment had been expected since nearly the beginning of the year. But now that it’s finally happening, the implications are massive. Netanyahu has been in office since 2009, taking over shortly after Olmert resigned in disgrace, and has become an increasingly authoritarian figure over time.
Two of the cases against him involve attempts to corruptly court the media, using policy favors to get more favorable coverage. The formal indictments represent the Israeli legal system striking back against his anti-democratic tendencies.
The announcement also came at a crucial time in Israeli politics: the aftermath of an inconclusive election. Neither Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party nor its chief rival, the centrist Blue and White party, have been able to form a governing coalition. The parties had been in talks to ally with each other and form a national unity coalition, but one of the key sticking points has been Netanyahu himself. He wants to keep the top job in some capacity, while Blue and White leaders have adamantly refused to allow him to do so while an indictment is still on the table.
Now, with the indictment formally filed, it will be easier for Netanyahu’s rivals within the Likud to dump him and then join in coalition with Blue and White. So this announcement could very well spell double doom for Netanyahu: first losing his job, then losing his freedom.
Why the formal indictment is such a big deal
The indictment against Netanyahu covers three different cases.
The first, called Case 1000, involves Netanyahu and his wife Sara receiving inappropriately valuable personal gifts from Israeli American billionaire Arnon Milchan and Australian businessman James Packer. It’s pretty garden-variety political corruption and bribery.
The second and third, Cases 2000 and 4000, involve some more insidious stuff: the abuse of the powers of office for political gain. In this respect, they’re similar to the Ukraine scandal in the US — except the quid pro quo is with domestic media rather than a foreign power.
In Case 2000, Netanyahu allegedly attempted to strike a deal with the owner of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest newspaper: He would pass a law limiting circulation of one of its rivals, the already pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom, in exchange for more favorable coverage in the Netanyahu-skeptical Yedioth. This scheme apparently never entered force.
In Case 4000, Netanyahu allegedly manipulated regulatory powers in order to benefit Bezeq, a major Israeli company. In exchange, the Bezeq-owned news organization Walla gave the prime minister more favorable coverage. Unlike Case 2000, this allegedly went beyond the conspiracy stage, with Netanyahu trading regulations for good press over a five-year period.
The technical charges are bribery, fraud, and breach of public trust — the former the most serious under Israeli law, and the most damaging to Netanyahu.
In full context, these allegations are even more troubling than they may appear. Under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel passed a law declaring that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” — a vision of national identity that excludes Arabs and other non-Jewish minorities. It passed a law aimed at silencing NGOs that monitored the Israeli military’s human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories, and attacked the independence of the judiciary.
So the media manipulation isn’t an isolated offense. It’s part of a broader pattern of authoritarian drift that has made Israeli observers quite concerned about the health of their country’s political system.
“What many of the allegations against Netanyahu point to is a systematic attempt to skew media coverage of the prime minister in his favor. And this is no piffling matter,” writes eminent Israeli journalist David Horovitz. “If a leader can line up most or even many of the ostensibly competing media organizations that cover national events reliably on his side, he can subvert their role as independent watchdog, misdirect the reading and watching public, and advance a long way toward cementing his position as prime minister — his non-term-limited position as prime minister in Israel.”
This indictment, then, represents the guardrails of Israeli democracy working as they’re supposed to: stepping in at a key time to protect the system from venal leadership.
And indeed, the timing really is vital. On Wednesday, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz announced that he had been unable to form a coalition in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, during the time allotted to his party alone (Netanyahu’s repeated racist attacks against the leading Arab political faction, which could have joined with Gantz, did not help matters). It seems like Israel is close to having yet another election, the third in less than a year.
Yet there’s still a three week period in which any faction, not only Gantz’s, can attempt to form a coalition. And now the indictment might well put enough pressure on an anti-Netanyahu faction within Likud to finally dump the long-serving prime minister. It’s kind of a natural coalition: Blue and White is more of a center-right than purely centrist party, with the biggest dividing line between it and Likud centering on Netanyahu personally and his attacks on the democratic system. Some analysts believe that the indictment might just remove the key sticking point to this solution.
“It could shuffle the cards by giving Likud cover to break with Bibi [Netanyahu],” writes Natan Sachs, the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, adding that there’s “already a public challenge to Netanyahu in his party” from Likud MK Gideon Saar.
This is not to say Israeli democracy is out of the woods. The reason for democratic backsliding in the country are, at root, linked to its occupation of Palestinian land. Israel administers a military dictatorship in the West Bank that imposes its whim on Palestinians with little accountability, a kind of unlawfulness that corrupted democratic institutions inside legally recognized Israel territory. If it annexes part of the West Bank, as Netanyahu promised to do, then this occupation would likely become permanent — and turn into formal apartheid.
Blue and White doesn’t have a plan to end the occupation, and it seems unlikely that it even wants to put one together. It has even signaled willingness to conduct a partial annexation, revealing just how seriously we need to take the threat facing both Palestinians and Israeli liberalism. But if Netanyahu is forced out, it’s at least a rare victory for democracy.