Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech marking the International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the breakthrough the Nazi Siege of Leningrad in the World War II, at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow, Russia, January 29, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday that he will be indicted for his role in three cases of impropriety, pending a possible hearing on all cases. 

In one case Netanyahu will be charged with bribery and in two others he will face the lesser charges of breach of trust and fraud. Breach of trust describes an offense whereby public officials betray the trust placed in them. This is the first time a sitting prime minister has been indicted for criminal offenses.

The first case in which only lesser charges will be pursued is Case 1000, involving suspicions that Netanyahu received gifts from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian millionaire James Packer in exchange for unethical services rendered. There was general agreement amongst prosecutors that this case was the least serious. According to the indictment, “there is enough evidence that the gifts given in large scale and in unusual ways, had been received in exchange for actions by Netanyahu.”

The second is Case 2000, which sees Netanyahu accused of coordinating with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to receive more favorable press coverage in return for weakening rival newspapers. The publisher was willing to trade the independence of his media outlets in exchange for legislation which would return his paper to its position as the premier one in the country.

In this case, Mozes will be charged with bribery, while Netanyahu will be indicted for breach of trust. This outcome is far more controversial. By all accounts, most officials involved in the prosecution believed there was enough evidence to indict the Prime Minister for bribery.

Indeed, the report drafted by Mandelblit paints a grim picture of the unscrupulous behavior of the premier. What saved Netanyahu was the fact that the deal was never finalized. However, according to Israeli law willingness to enter into a deal involving bribery is a equivalent to actually taking action. This has led to criticism. Some believe Mandelblit was soft on Netanyahu.

The truly damaging charges are associated with Case 4000. A large body of evidence points at Netanyahu’s promotion of regulatory policies beneficial to Israeli telecom giant Bezeq in exchange for favorable coverage in a news website owned by principle shareholder Shaul Elovitch. The benefits to Bezeq came directly at the expense of the public, which would pay higher communication bills as a result. As repayment for furthering his interests, Elovitch curtailed the freedom of the relevant website, which became essentially an organ of the Prime Minister’s office.

The indictment read: “The Attorney General has reached a clear conclusion, by which corrupt, improper motives were at the core of Netanyahu’s actions.” Due to the overwhelming quality of the evidence, in this case the Prime Minister will be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

The indictment ended with a scathing critique of the Prime Minister’s actions: You have hurt the image of public service and public faith in it,” Mendelblit wrote to Netanyahu in his decision.

“You acted in a conflict of interests, you abused your authority while taking into account other considerations that relate to your personal interests and the interests of your family. You corrupted public servants working under you.”

Damage control

In an effort at damage control, the Likud had begun a campaign of character assassination against the Attorney General. However, internal polling indicates Mandelblit is popular. As a result, the strategy was altered to one of blaming a vast left-wing conspiracy.

An official statement by the Likud claimed the indictment “came after three years of enormous pressures that were laid against him to file an indictment at any price” with the intent to “topple the right-wing government headed by Netanyahu so as to give rise to a left-wing government.”

The indictment sees Israeli politics enter an uncertain period.

Before a trial can begin, Netanyahu and his lawyers are likely to request a hearing. The hearing process will be drawn out over several months during which the prime minister is not required to resign. If the indictment were to proceed after the hearing process ends, Netanyahu will be required to resign.

Heading to the polls, voters will not know if Bibi can remain prime minister and for how long. This may have a significant effect on voter behavior. According to a poll conducted by the Times of Israel, a decision to indict Netanyahu sees the Likud drop from 30 seats to 25, while the newly formed centrist Blue and White party would now receive a whopping 44.

All caveats regarding premature polling apply. However, assuming this projection holds, the consequences are far-reaching. The poll predicts that right-wing parties will receive 55 seats – well shy of the 61 needed to form a government. If this scenario comes to pass, Gantz and his centrist party of generals are likely to get a first crack at forming a governing coalition.

Trump backs Netanyahu

The reactions by the different political parties were predictable. Labor and Meretz, the two left-wing parties, called on the prime minister to resign immediately. Gantz firmly stated that he would not sit in a coalition with Netanyahu and called on the prime minister to resign from his position.

Avi Gabay, the leader of the Labor Party said that “Netanyahu is disgracing the State of Israel.” The Kulanu Party, which is part of the coalition, has been notably silent on the indictment decision.

Meanwhile, the New Right party has stated they will recommend Netanyahu to lead the next government as he deserves to enjoy the presumption of innocence. Bezalel Smotrich of the Jewish Home announced that he would support legislating a law granting the prime minister immunity.

President Donald Trump, whose former lawyer Michael Cohen testified against him on Wednesday before Congress, joined in the defense of the prime minister and said Netanyahu was “tough, smart, and strong. doing a great job.”

There are a great many unknowns going into the elections. Perhaps most importantly, there are several parties hovering close to the electoral threshold on both sides of the political map. The contours of the election could be determined by which parties end up obtaining enough votes to enter the Knesset. One thing is for certain, both legally and politically speaking: Netanyahu’s hold on power is more tenuous than ever before.

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