Benjamin Netanyahu's Bid for Reelection Hit By Legal Storm

(Bloomberg) -- This year could see Benjamin Netanyahu surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. It also could be the year he steps down in disgrace. With general elections approaching on April 9, Netanyahu’s bid for history got much more difficult with the announcement that Israel’s attorney general plans to put him on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust following a two-year investigation.

1. What does the attorney general’s announcement mean?

Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit’s announcement of a draft indictment against Netanyahu sets in motion a lengthy legal process. Before an indictment is filed, Netanyahu, 69, is entitled to a hearing -- which could take months -- to present his side of the story and try to change Mandelblit’s mind. The prime minister can continue in office until the appeals process is exhausted. Netanyahu says the investigation is a witch hunt, denies all wrongdoing, and insists he won’t step down unless convicted. He remains a strong contender for re-election but now must campaign under a new cloud.

2. How did Netanyahu get here?

After many months of investigation, police recommended in February 2018 that he be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust for trading his influence for favors in two cases. Later, they recommended charging him in a third case involving Israel’s largest telecommunications company, Bezeq. After months of deliberation, the attorney general said he’s considering indicting Netanyahu for fraud and breach of trust in the first two cases, and for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the Bezeq case.

3. What’s the political backdrop?

Netanyahu is in a political battle for survival. After his Likud party sprinted to a wide lead in polls, it now finds itself trailing the centrist Blue & White bloc headed by former military chief of staff Benny Gantz and ex-Finance Minister Yair Lapid. It’s unclear to what extent voters might shift alliances based on Mandelblit’s announcement: The prime minister had been preparing the public for it for months, but the tightness of the race means even a minor shift could have important implications. At the same time, Netanyahu has proven in the past to be a political magician.

4. What exactly did the attorney general accuse him of?

Investigators estimate Netanyahu received gifts of champagne, cigars, and jewelry worth about 478,000 shekels ($132,000) from billionaire Arnon Milchan, producer of films such as “Fight Club” and “The Big Short.” In exchange, Mandelblit said Netanyahu sought to advance Milchan’s interests in 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 free daily. In the third case, which legal experts consider the gravest, Netanyahu is suspected of advancing the business interests of his friend Shaul Elovitch, Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, in exchange for favorable media coverage on a Bezeq-owned news site.

5. 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.

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