Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu continues to find himself in deeper and deeper legal trouble — but that doesn’t mean he’ll be leaving office anytime soon.
Last month, Israeli police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted on fraud, bribery, and breach of trust charges, and accused him of granting regulatory favors to Israeli telecom giant Bezeq in exchange for flattering news coverage of himself on a website owned by the telecom company.
But at a press conference on Monday in Brazil, the prime minister said that he would not step down if he were called to a corruption hearing before Israeli elections in April. “The hearing doesn’t end until you hear my side, and it doesn’t make sense to open the hearing process before the election if you can’t finish it before the election,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Netanyahu has found himself at the center of a corruption scandal — he’s been dogged by legal troubles since he first served as prime minister in the 1990s. But this is the third time in a year that Israeli police have recommended he be indicted on serious corruption charges — and the most recent case, experts agree, is the most damning one to date.
It also comes at a precarious time for Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition, which holds a slim majority in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Netanyahu has received pushback from Israeli hawks for negotiating a ceasefire with the militant group Hamas in Gaza in November; his defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, resigned over the issue. Last week, coalition leaders decided to dissolve the Knesset and move Israeli elections up to April — several months earlier than planned.
Netanyahu is still popular among Israelis, but if the country’s attorney general decides to put the sitting prime minister on trial, there’s no saying what could happen. And if he is forced to resign, there’s no clear alternative to replace him. Both outcomes could have a significant impact on the country and the region.
Here’s a brief guide to the legal woes currently afflicting Israel’s prime minister, and what they could mean for the future of US President Donald Trump’s closest ally in the Middle East.
Israel’s prime minister is a suspect in several corruption cases
There are currently three cases in which Netanyahu himself is a suspect. There’s also another case where his wife, Sara Netanyahu, is under indictment. And there’s yet another case that involves procurement of submarines and corruption of the military, in which people very close to the prime minister are suspects, though not Netanyahu himself.
In the first of the three cases, Israeli police allege that for years, Netanyahu and his wife Sara received gifts in the form of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of champagne, jewelry and cigars from wealthy individuals in the United States and Australia. In exchange, Netanyahu reportedly tried to extend tax exemption legislation that would have benefitted at least one of the men involved.
It’s unclear if there actually was a quid pro quo arrangement, but the charges could constitute bribery regardless. It’s worth noting that Netanyahu’s predecessor, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, went to prison after being convicted of accepting bribes, so it’s not a charge to be taken lightly.
In the second case, one of Netanyahu’s aides recorded lengthy conversations between the prime minister and the head of Israel’s largest opposition paper, in which they discussed making a deal where the paper would be less critical of Netanyahu.
In return, the prime minister would stop the weekend publication of their commercial rival, Israel Today, a paper owned by US casino magnate Sheldon Adelson (which is sometimes known in Israel as the “Bibi paper” for its pro-Netanyahu stance). The deal apparently was never settled, but the conversations in themselves were damning enough.
But experts who I spoke to told me that the third and most recent case against the prime minister is the strongest.
On December 2, Israeli police accused Netanyahu of trading regulatory favors for positive media coverage of himself and his family. Over a period of five years, the prime minister reportedly intervened in the day-to-day coverage and affairs of Walla!, a news website run by the country’s telecommunications company, Bezeq.
In return, Netanyahu — in his role as minister of communications, which is one of his titles — rewarded the company by using his political power to give them more favorable regulations, despite political opposition.
This case is more powerful than the first one, Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, DC, told me. That’s because the deal actually took place. Police also interviewed close to 60 witnesses in order to piece their case together, so it doesn’t look like it’s going to be easy to sweep under the rug.
Netanyahu has already tried, though.
Netanyahu is trying to deflect attention from his current legal woes
In order to deflect from this and other past investigations, Israel’s prime minister has turned to tried and true tactics right out of the Trump playbook: calling the investigations against him “fake news” and a “witch hunt,” and decrying the “liberal media.”
“While Netanyahu and Trump are profoundly different—Bibi’s many faults aside, he is erudite, cautious, and experienced—the two men share an approach to confronting political adversity: divide and conquer, turn the spotlight on the ‘other,’ create an other when none is available, and always, always, feed the base,” Sachs wrote for the Atlantic in 2017.
And what better way to distract the public than with a new military offensive? On December 4, just two days after the police made their recommendation about the corruption charges, the prime minister announced that they would be launching an effort to destroy tunnels that he says the militant group Hizbollah is using to infiltrate Israel from Lebanon.
Launching this operation now could partly be a tactic to distract from the negative press around the corruption allegations ahead of Israeli elections.
When I spoke to him in mid-December, Sachs pointed out that while there’s a good, legitimate reason for the operation, it’s actually in Israeli territory, and the drama in the press around it is overblown. Netanyahu “tried to build this up publicly as some brave, huge operation, and that of course helps him politically,” he said.
Other experts have said that the prime minister pushed to move Israel’s elections up to the Spring in an attempt to undercut any potential indictment and its aftermath.
“He wants to turn around to the attorney general and say, pay attention, the people of Israel have re-elected me for the [fifth] time; you cannot overturn the results of a democratic election,” Reuven Hazan, a political-science professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told the Wall Street Journal.
What’s going to happen next?
It ultimately falls to Israel’s attorney general, whom Netanyahu appointed, to make the final decision about whether or not to indict the prime minister. If he does choose to pursue charges, he’ll likely schedule a hearing, where Netanyahu will have the chance to rebut the accusations.
There’s no set timetable, though, and the process could take easily take months. “It’s a really complex financial investigation, and add to this the fact that it’s the prime minister and some of the most powerful, influential business people in Israel who are involved,” Anshel Pfeffer, a Jerusalem-based journalist and author of a recent biography about Netanyahu, told me. “These things combine together to make it a very long, detailed, laborious process.”
If he is indicted, he still may not have to leave office. There’s an ongoing legal debate about whether or not Netanyahu can be forced to resign if he has to sit trial. But leaders of other parties could likely say an indictment is a step too far, and call for his resignation.
If he’s convicted, however, the law is very clear, Sachs says: “He would have to resign.”
In the meantime, the prime minister still enjoys a high level of popularity among Israelis. He’s proved remarkably resilient to corruption claims that have plagued his administration for years.
“His coalition prefers to stick with him even though they may not like him; he’s an election winner, he delivers what the coalition wants most of the time,” Pfeffer told me when we spoke in December. “Also because it’s a right-wing coalition, none of them want to be seen as being responsible for bringing down the right-wing government.”
But if Netanyahu does leave office eventually, Israelis will have to contend with finding a new candidate to fill his shoes. “He’s quite popular right now and the key thing to think about is, is there an obvious challenger to him?” said Mira Sucharov, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. “There doesn’t really seem to be,” she concluded.
If Netanyahu is indicted and he decides to stay in office, it could theoretically provoke a constitutional crisis inside the country. “We’ve never had a situation where a prime minister insists on serving while on trial,” Pfeffer told me.
But it’s a new year, and anything is possible.