Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, gestures as he speaks during a news conference at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium (Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg)  

Why 2019 Could Be Make-or-Break Year for Netanyahu

(Bloomberg) -- For Benjamin Netanyahu, 2019 could be the year he surpasses founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. It could also be the year he’s forced to step down to fight the legal battle of his life. The Israeli parliament’s decision to trigger early elections April 9 means that Netanyahu will be running for re-election even as the attorney general mulls whether to indict the prime minister in a sprawling corruption investigation.

1. Where does the investigation stand?

After many months of investigation, police in February recommended charging Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust for trading his influence for favors in two separate cases. Later, they suggested charging him in a third case involving Israel’s largest telecommunications company, Bezeq. Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit must decide whether to file charges against a sitting Israeli prime minister for the first time. Israel’s Channel 10 television station reported in mid-December that Mandelblit’s office thinks there’s enough evidence to indict Netanyahu in at least one of the three cases. Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing. He’s described the investigations as a witch hunt waged by left-wing political opponents.

2. Why did the government call snap elections?

Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government had been hanging by a thread since Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman resigned in November and withdrew his party. That left the government with a parliamentary majority of 61 of 120 seats. Netanyahu called for early elections -- which polls predict he will win -- citing a disagreement within the coalition government over how to craft legislation to draft ultra-Orthodox rabbinical students, who now enjoy an exemption from mandatory army service. Skeptics argue that his real motivation was the attorney general’s pending decision. They say the prime minister is betting that Mandelblit won’t move before the election, for fear of being seen to interfere with it, and that he’ll be discouraged from pressing charges afterward by what Netanyahu expects to be a big, fresh mandate from voters.

3. Who are Netanyahu’s political rivals?

Polls show that next to Netanyahu, the most popular contenders for national leadership are Yair Lapid of the centrist party Yesh Atid and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon of the Kulanu party, which focuses on economic disparities. Other aspirants include Avi Gabbay, chairman of the Labor party, Liberman of the hawkish Yisrael Beitenu party, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Jewish Home. On Thursday, Benny Gantz, a popular former military chief of staff, registered a new political party, but his positions remain vague on divisive issues such as Israeli-Palestinian relations.

4. What if Netanyahu is re-elected, then indicted?

He would not be legally obligated to resign. However, his right-wing Likud party again would need partners to form a parliamentary majority, and an indictment could prompt at least some of them to quit such a coalition, endangering his hold on power. That has prompted speculation already that a re-elected Netanyahu may seek assurances from potential coalition partners that they would stick by him if he is charged.

5. What exactly is he accused of doing?

Police estimate Netanyahu received gifts worth about 1 million shekels ($270,000), including champagne, cigars, and jewelry, from Australian businessman James Packer and billionaire Arnon Milchan, the producer of films such as “Fight Club” and “The Big Short.” In exchange, police say Netanyahu sought to advance Milchan’s interests in various fields including telecommunications and tax law, and by helping with his U.S. visa. In the second case, Netanyahu is accused of conspiring with the owner of Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper to undermine Israel Hayom, a competing free daily backed by U.S. casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, chairman and majority owner of Las Vegas Sands Corp. In the third case, which legal experts consider the gravest, Netanyahu is suspected of advancing the business interests of his longtime friend Shaul Elovitch, Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, in exchange for favorable media coverage on a Bezeq-owned news site.

6. How unusual is an investigation of a prime minister?

Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was indicted on corruption charges after leaving office in 2009, acquitted on the most serious charges in 2012, convicted on other charges in 2014 and entered prison only in 2016. (He was released in 2017). Other investigations, of former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, continued for years without resulting in charges against them.

The Reference Shelf

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.