It was early March, and Israeli police were questioning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as part of a burgeoning corruption probe that could force him out of power — and potentially even send him to jail — when the phone rang at Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem. The caller was President Donald Trump.
Netanyahu excused himself and took the call. According to his office, the two leaders discussed the Trump administration’s Iran strategy for several minutes, after which the interrogation resumed. It was the fourth time that Israeli police had questioned Netanyahu, a sign of the seriousness of the probe — and the growing dangers facing the Israeli leader.
Many in Israel and Washington believe that the timing of the March 6 call wasn’t a coincidence. Some speculated that Netanyahu knew the call would come while he was questioned, and deliberately didn’t try to reschedule it; others went even further, suggesting that the White House was trying to help Netanyahu survive the rapidly expanding criminal investigation by signaling to Israeli prosecutors that the Trump administration viewed the prime minister as an indispensable ally. That would be Trump’s way of paying back Netanyahu for inoculating him against charges of anti-Semitism.
Either way, Netanyahu got the public framing he wanted: a prime minister dealing with critical issues of Israeli national security while being harassed over petty allegations of bribery, corruption, and influence peddling. Instead of listing the charges against him, headlines in the Israeli press focused on Trump and Iran — and put new pressure on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who will soon have to decide whether to press charges against Netanyahu.
The call is a vivid illustration of a major scandal that threatens to reshape Israeli politics but has gotten very little attention in the US. Many Americans think about Netanyahu solely through the prism of his government’s often rocky relationship with the US. He and former President Barack Obama openly disdained each other and fought publicly over issues like Iran and Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Back home in Israel, though, Netanyahu is in the headlines for a vastly different reason: a pair of criminal investigations that threaten to end his career — and potentially even send him to prison. Netanyahu, one of Israel’s longest-serving prime ministers, may be forced from office not by a political rival but by the prospect that he abused the powers of his office for personal and political gain.
The first case against Netanyahu centers on expensive gifts he and his wife got — and sometimes demanded — from rich businessmen. The second case deals with negotiations Netanyahu held with Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Israel’s largest newspaper. The two men allegedly discussed legislation designed to hurt Mozes’s main competitor in exchange for positive coverage of the prime minister.
Netanyahu has strenuously denied the allegations, and hinted that he wouldn’t resign even if Israeli prosecutors were to formally indict him. The police are expected to wrap up their work in the coming weeks, and the attorney general will then take several more months to make his call.
Even if Netanyahu refuses to leave, an indictment will almost surely lead to early elections. Two major parties have taken steps to hold their primaries sooner than planned, and prominent Israeli politicians such as former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon have signaled their intention to run. Netanyahu himself is hinting that he's prepared to quickly call new elections — a move that some pundits attribute to his desire to go to the polls before criminal charges are brought against him.
Netanyahu’s potential downfall would have a dramatic and immediate impact on Israel’s relationship with the US, its most vital ally. Trump has signaled that he feels personal affection for Netanyahu and has floated the idea of acceding to a pair of Netanyahu’s top objectives: moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and giving Israel a green light for settlement expansion. (Though Trump has backed away from both positions recently.)
Trump, in turn, views Netanyahu as an ally who will back his hard-line policies on Iran, protect his relationship with the American-Jewish community, and bolster his ties with Republican lawmakers who almost uniformly support Israel generally and Netanyahu specifically.
If one of the scandals takes down Netanyahu, in other words, it won’t just be Israel’s political system that will be thrown into turmoil. The Trump administration’s plans for Israel will be upended too.
Israel has a troubling culture of high-level corruption
Incredibly, every Israeli prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, who served in the mid-1990s, has at one time or another faced criminal investigations while in office. Only one of those investigations actually led to a criminal prosecution, however. That’s led some Israelis to conclude that the decisions about whether to actually press charges against a sitting prime minister have more to do with their perceived strength than with the actual evidence of their potential wrongdoing.
Take Ariel Sharon, the bellicose former general who ran Israel from March 2001 to April 2006. At the height of his powers, he avoided criminal charges in the “Greek Island” affair, where he was accused of taking bribes in exchange for helping an Israeli tycoon build a casino on a small and remote island in the Aegean Sea.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, already weakened by Israel’s failed military campaign in South Lebanon in 2006, was convicted in a 2009 bribery case. Olmert is currently serving his 18-month sentence in the same prison where former Israeli President Moshe Katsav spent five years following a rape conviction.
Netanyahu himself faced several criminal investigations during his first term in office, which ran from 1996 to 1999. He was defeated by Ehud Barak in May 1999, 16 months before the attorney general decided to drop the last of those investigations. Barak, in turn, faced a criminal probe of his own for alleged campaign financing violations. Those charges were dropped in 2003.
“It’s a list of suspects and convicted felons that shed a very bad light on our political system,” says Tamar Zandberg, a lawmaker from the left-wing Meretz Party. “Many of us believed that Olmert’s conviction was a watershed moment, and that people would get the message. This turned out to be wishful thinking.”
The corruption investigations that could take down Netanyahu
The timing of the new probes couldn’t be worse for Netanyahu, who was looking forward to a warm relationship with Trump after years of open sparring with the Obama administration. Instead, the Israeli prime minister faces the fight of his life.
According to most estimates, the first of the investigations into Netanyahu, referred to by Israeli police as “Case 1,000,” is the one most likely to end up in court.
Police suspect Netanyahu accepted — and at times demanded — lavish gifts from wealthy businessmen, including Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer. In one incident reported by the Israeli media, Netanyahu’s wife, Sarah, specifically demanded $2,700 worth of jewelry, which Milchan provided. According to a report in Haaretz, Milchan told police that in one instance, the Netanyahus’ demands made him “feel sick.”
The Netanyahus do not deny receiving presents from Milchan and Packer, but claim that these were gifts among friends, which are not forbidden by law. However, Milchan holds 9.8 percent of Israel’s Channel 10, which is subject to regulation by Israel’s Ministry of Communications — which Netanyahu was personally running until recently. Netanyahu also intervened with then-US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and then-Secretary of State John Kerry to get Milchan’s US visa renewed.
The second probe, which police call “Case 2,000,” centers on recordings the police obtained while examining the personal computer and phone of Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow. Harow was under an unrelated investigation for money laundering and bribes. (The police recently announced it had “sufficient evidence” against Harow; the office of the state’s prosecutor has yet to decide whether to press charges.)
Those recordings capture conversations between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and the popular Ynet News website.
In their conversations, which took place before the 2015 Israeli elections, Mozes reportedly offered to do “everything in his power” to help Netanyahu stay in power “for as long as you want.” In exchange, Mozes requested legislation that would limit the ability of his main competitor, the pro-Netanyahu Israel HaYom newspaper, to distribute free papers.
According to transcripts obtained by Israel’s Channel 2, the two went so as far as to discuss potential pro-Netanyahu columnists that Mozes would hire. Netanyahu then said he would discuss the legislation with “the redhead” — referring to Israel HaYom’s publisher, the American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a major GOP donor who also contributed large amounts of money to Trump’s successful presidential campaign.
Facing mounting pressure over both cases, Netanyahu was recently forced to temporarily recuse himself from running the Ministry of Communication.
Netanyahu’s legal worries do not end there: The prime minister’s personal attorney (who is also his second cousin and a trusted proxy going back years) is one of the three known suspects in “Case 3,000,” which is looking at a suspicious Israeli military contract with a German shipbuilder.
In a fourth case, Israeli police have recommended pressing charges against Sarah Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, for misusing state funds. Prosecutors are currently weighing whether to bring charges.
Netanyahu’s fate now rests in the hands of Israel’s top cop
The man at the center of the drama — apart from Netanyahu himself — is Attorney General Mandelblit. In his previous role, Mandelblit served as the government secretary, a position that involved a close working relationship with the prime minister. Netanyahu and Mandelblit got along so well that the latter’s appointment to head the prosecution drew heavy criticism, with an Israeli watchdog group filing two formal petitions asking Israel’s high court to prevent his appointment. Both were rejected.
Mandelblit has been extremely cautious in handling Netanyahu’s cases — in the eyes of critics like former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, far too cautious. He deliberated for months before authorizing formal police investigations against the prime minister. The attorney general also forbade the police to question Netanyahu and his wife simultaneously, a routine procedure in such cases that is meant to prevent suspects from coordinating their statements.
“[There is] a strong sense of whitewashing and obstruction,” Barak wrote on his Facebook page following reports that Mandelblit blocked the police from trying to speak to Shapiro and Kerry as part of one of the corruption probes.
“The people’s trust in Mandelblit is crumbling,” added Barak, who served as defense minister in Netanyahu’s government from 2009 to 2013.
But there is also the opposite interpretation: Some observers speculate that Mandelblit is deliberately moving slowly and cautiously because he may be nearing a decision to take the extraordinary step of filing charges against Netanyahu.
“The evidence against Netanyahu was available for the attorney general to examine before he made his decision to launch a criminal probe,” a former police investigator who led high-profile cases told me. “The AG was aware of all the implications, including the political ones, and yet he ordered the police to launch formal investigations. This might suggest that he saw something there.”
Indictment or no indictment, Netanyahu is vowing to stay in office
As the police wrap up their investigations, Netanyahu’s allies say he will not go down without a fight.
A high court ruling from 1993 requires that a minister resign after an indictment or be fired by the prime minister if he or she refuses to step down. But the ruling says nothing about whether a prime minister must resign — and there’s nobody who can fire Netanyahu, since he himself is the prime minister.
That means Netanyahu would need to quit on his own, and he’s given no signs that he intends to do so. The head of Netanyahu’s governing coalition in Israel’s parliament, Likud Party lawmaker David Bitan, declared in a public event on Saturday that “Netanyahu will not resign — even if there is an indictment.”
But there’s another way he could potentially be forced out. In the Israeli system, Netanyahu depends on his coalition partners to maintain the parliamentary majority that keeps him in power. And at least two of them — Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett — might try to force him out by threatening to leave the coalition, or simply by dropping out. That’s what happened to Olmert, who was pushed to resign following his indictment. Finally, Netanyahu might also try to call early elections on his own, so he can face the prosecution with a renewed mandate from the people.
Netanyahu’s rivals on the right have been careful not to attack him right now — the country’s left wing is so weak that his only conceivable challengers would be even more hawkish than the prime minister himself. His right-wing rivals will compete for his supporters in the future, so alienating those supporters today makes no sense.
Still, few of Israel’s leading right-wing politicians are openly backing Netanyahu. The incumbent prime minister is instead drawing support mainly from Likud backbenchers and his country’s pro-Netanyahu media outlets.
Behind the scenes, initial preparations for early elections are taking place. The Labor and Jewish Home parties have indicated their intention to hold primaries this spring. Popular former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has announced he will form his own party and compete for the top job. And the settlers are threatening to punish the government if their demand for a new outpost is not answered.
“There is a certain frenzy in the Knesset … something you feel ahead of elections,” Zandberg says.
As if that’s not enough, recent polls show that early elections could result in Netanyahu’s coalition losing its majority in the Israeli parliament. If those predictions prove accurate, the vote would pave the way for a new leader to replace Netanyahu as prime minister.
Is it time for a requiem for one of the longest-serving prime ministers in Israeli history?
No other person has shaped the face of present-day Israel as much as Netanyahu has during his 20 years in power. He’s changed Israel’s strategic priorities from seeking peace with the Palestinians to working to contain Iran, which he sees as an existential threat. Netanyahu has also helped decimate the country’s left-wing political parties and populated Israeli institutions with right-wing officials who hold religiously conservative and pro-settlement views.
Perhaps more than anything else, Netanyahu brought to politics a confrontational attitude that seems to have preceded its time. Today, everybody walks and talks like Netanyahu. He was never loved the way previous prime ministers like Sharon or Rabin were, but he has an intuitive sense for the undercurrents of politics that has allowed him to survive and flourish in one of the most chaotic and hard-edged political systems in the world.
That his downfall may ultimately come at a time when his fortunes seem to be at an all-time high — with a friendly White House and no serious domestic political challengers — is the height of irony.