Why Netanyahu Finds Himself in Legal Jeopardy: QuickTake
Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, pauses for questions while speaking with heads of Israeli local regional councils in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photographer: Ahikam Seri/Bloomberg News)

Why Netanyahu Finds Himself in Legal Jeopardy: QuickTake

(Bloomberg) -- Over the course of many months, Israeli prosecutors investigating alleged corruption worked their way into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner sanctum. Now Netanyahu’s discomfort has become real legal peril. His tenure as prime minister, the second longest in Israel’s history, could be threatened, and the country could see its second consecutive leader indicted for alleged wrongdoing.

1. What is Netanyahu accused of doing?

Israeli police recommended charging him with bribery, fraud and breach of trust for allegedly trading his influence for favors in two separate cases. That recommendation goes to Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit, who will decide whether to file charges against a sitting Israeli prime minister for the first time. Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing.

2. What are the two cases?

Police estimate Netanyahu received gifts worth about 1 million shekels ($283,000), including champagne, cigars, and jewelry, from Australian businessman James Packer and billionaire Arnon Milchan, the Hollywood 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 him with his U.S. visa. Netanyahu says Milchan is simply a friend who gave him gifts, but police say a public servant can’t receive gifts in exchange for advancing a businessman’s interests. 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.

3. How strong is the evidence against Netanyahu?

That remains to be seen, of course. Police say they’ve interviewed numerous witnesses around the world in more than a year of investigations. Prosecutors have secured the cooperation of Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, who agreed to a plea bargain after police recommended he be tried for bribery, fraud and money laundering in a separate case. It’s worth noting that in my instances -- including two previous investigations of Netanyahu where police also recommended he be charged -- attorneys general felt the evidence wouldn’t stand up in court, and closed the cases.

4. What has Netanyahu said about the investigations?

He has repeatedly described them as a witch hunt waged by left-wing political opponents. Netanyahu called the police recommendation of charges "unfounded" and said a prime minister who devoted his life to serving the nation wouldn’t sell it out for cigars. He has consistently portrayed the investigation as a political ploy intended to replace his conservative government with a more liberal one. That line of argument intensified after it emerged that testimony from Yesh Atid Party leader Yair Lapid, Netanyahu’s former finance minister and now his leading rival, was key in building the police case about Netanyahu’s alleged favors to Milchan.

5. What happens if he’s indicted?

Netanyahu, whose 11 years in office make him Israel’s longest-serving prime minister after founding father David Ben-Gurion, wouldn’t be legally obligated to resign. An indictment could prompt partners in his ruling coalition to quit, forcing new elections. If the coalition endured, the next question would be whether Netanyahu could manage to stay in office while on trial. With his term ending in late 2019, the issue may be moot because of the time it would take the case to reach court. 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.

6. Who are potential successors to Netanyahu?

If Netanyahu is driven from office and new elections are called, polls show Lapid and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon of the Kulanu party as top contenders to replace him. Avi Gabbay, chairman of the opposition Labor party, would run for office, as could Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman of the Yisrael Beitenu party, Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party and Israel Katz, minister of intelligence and transportation from Netanyahu’s Likud party.

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