Netanyahu Allies Try to Curb Police as Corruption Probes Wrap Up

(Bloomberg) -- As Israeli police wrap up investigations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his allies in parliament pushed through a bill that critics say could be used to silence investigators.

The legislation, approved early Thursday morning after a two-day filibuster, forbids police from submitting written recommendations to the state prosecutor’s office on whether to indict a suspect. The bill was watered down earlier this month after protests prompted Netanyahu to say it shouldn’t apply to his current investigations, but opponents say it still represents unacceptable political intervention in police work. Some say the bill could shield the prime minister, who denies any wrongdoing, in future investigations.

“It’s ludicrous legislation because there’s no precedent for legislating those two complementing law enforcement agencies,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute research center, referring to police and prosecutors. “There’s no logic to it unless one wants to create some sort of deterrence vis-a-vis the police.”

Police recommendations aren’t binding on prosecutors but have the potential to shake up Israel’s political landscape, especially if the police conclude the prime minister should be charged with a crime as severe as bribery. While Netanyahu told supporters this month that he won’t resign even if police say there’s enough evidence to charge him -- noting the ultimate decision to indict rests with the attorney general -- political pressure on him to step aside would heat up. 

Seven Times

Police are expected to make their recommendations in coming weeks after questioning Netanyahu seven times in connection with two corruption cases. In one, he’s suspected of illicitly receiving tens of thousands of dollars worth of cigars and champagne from wealthy friends, including the Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, whose films include “Pretty Woman” and “Fight Club.” In the second, he’s accused of offering to secure legislation that would benefit a major newspaper publisher in return for favorable coverage; the bill never passed.

Netanyahu repeatedly has denied wrongdoing in the two cases. His office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

In a third major bribery case, involving the government purchase of submarines from Germany, the prime minister has not been named as a suspect but at least two of his confidants are being investigated on suspicion of wrongdoing.

Relations between Netanyahu and the police have soured as the investigations drag on, nearly a year after they broke out into the open. The prime minister and his supporters have accused police of deliberately leaking information about the investigations to Israeli media, claiming he’s the target of an organized campaign by the press and left-wing opponents to unseat him. Thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in recent weekends, rallying against government corruption and calling on Netanyahu to step down.

Netanyahu’s political rivals point to the proposed legislation as evidence of a corrupt government focused solely on saving the prime minister, the longest-serving Israeli leader since founding father David Ben-Gurion.

“They live in their own country, a corrupt country where everything is aimed at one goal -– to serve the ruler,” said Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, who is seen as a top contender for prime minister in the next election.

Netanyahu allies see it differently. Coalition whip David Amsalem, one of the bill’s strongest backers, said last week that some 80 percent of cases in which police recommend indictments ultimately are closed without charges.

“In the meantime,” he said, “great damage was done to the people affected.”

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.