February 14, 2018 11:09 pm
He and his governing coalition have campaigned to curb the activist Israeli judiciary, demonized the rambunctious press as a bastion of left-wing partisans, attacked the funding of nongovernmental organizations whose worldview they see as hostile and, as the police closed in, he has done his utmost to discredit them, too.
“I read the recommendations report,” Mr. Netanyahu said Wednesday, referring to a lengthy summary of the evidence law enforcement investigators had amassed against him. “I can say this is a slanted document, extreme, full of holes, like Swiss cheese, and holds no water.”
Mr. Netanyahu rode to power in 2009, after his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, faced indictment on charges of taking tens of thousands of dollars in cash payoffs. Mr. Olmert, who was deeply unpopular after leading Israel into a humiliating Lebanon war, was politically doomed the moment Israelis heard the news, but Mr. Netanyahu also has a far more commanding hold on power.
Mr. Olmert’s coalition had depended on the support of potent rivals like Tzipi Livni and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who pushed for Mr. Olmert to resign after his history of payoffs became known.
But with no acknowledged successor of any stature waiting in line, Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition is essentially a captive to him.
Much as Republicans in the United States Congress see Mr. Trump as their best shot of retaining power, even if they do not like everything about him, Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing and ultra-Orthodox allies prefer Mr. Netanyahu, whatever his faults, to being shut out by a left-of-center government.
Mr. Olmert’s political base was “less tolerant to allegations of corruption than Netanyahu’s,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, while “the more right-wing base is less open to any initiatives that may topple their leader.”
There are other differences, including sheer shock value. News of Mr. Olmert’s payoffs landed like a thunderbolt after surfacing in the unexpected testimony of his longtime benefactor in an open courtroom. But the outline and most of the details of Mr. Netanyahu’s alleged misdeeds have been dribbling out for more than a year through nearly daily leaks in the Israeli news media.
Indeed, the biggest surprise contained in the recommendations the police released Tuesday night — saying there was evidence to prosecute Mr. Netanyahu on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges — was that a key witness against him was a rival for his job, Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party.
Mr. Lapid, who has been gaining strength in the polls, told investigators that, while finance minister in a previous coalition, he had opposed an effort by Mr. Netanyahu to enhance a tax benefit that would have benefited an Israeli movie producer. The police said that Mr. Netanyahu’s tax effort was in exchange for lavish gifts from the producer Arnon Milchan.
Mr. Netanyahu and his allies sought to impeach Mr. Lapid’s testimony as nothing more than crass political self-interest.
“This is the same Lapid who promised to bring me down at any price,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
“You are a lousy snitch,” the head of the governing coalition, David Amsalem, called Mr. Lapid. “Aren’t you ashamed?”
Mr. Lapid said he had merely answered the questions investigators put to him, adding pointedly that Mr. Netanyahu needed to show responsibility by stepping down. It would be impossible for him to fulfill his duties, Mr. Lapid said in a video he posted on Facebook, “while you are spending the majority of your time with lawyers and in responding to the press.”
He added: “You cannot represent us in the world when every foreign leader that you meet knows you have been accused of serious offenses.”
There were also demands for Mr. Netanyahu’s resignation in the opposition and across much of the news media, and a demonstration against him was called for Friday in downtown Tel Aviv.
As a legal matter, the case now goes to state prosecutors and the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, a onetime Netanyahu aide. After closely supervising the investigation, Mr. Mandelblit will now decide whether to file formal charges. If he does, it will be a first against a sitting prime minister in Israel.
Getting to that point, which would require a hearing at which Mr. Netanyahu’s lawyers could argue against indictment, could take months.
As a political matter, however, Mr. Netanyahu’s right-leaning governing coalition holds just 66 of 120 seats in Parliament, so any cracks in solidarity could quickly prove fatal.
Within 24 hours, however, three crucial partners had indicated that they would stay by Mr. Netanyahu’s side for the moment. The finance minister, Moshe Kahlon, whose center-right Kulanu party holds 10 seats, signaled late Tuesday that he would not make any decisions before the attorney general’s decision on an indictment.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party has five seats, recalled how he was forced to resign as foreign minister after being indicted on corruption charges in 2012, but won acquittal and resumed his post a year later.
“This is why until a prime minister is convicted at court, he can continue,” Mr. Lieberman said.
The education minister, Naftali Bennett, who leads the right-wing Jewish Home party, which has eight seats, said that replacing the government “should be done at the voting station.”
But he allowed that the police recommendations were “harsh” and called into question the prime minister’s ability “to be a leader and role model for the citizens of Israel.”
“A prime minister is not meant to be perfect or live an over-modest lifestyle, but he needs to be someone people look at and say, ‘This is how one should act,’” he said. “Taking gifts in large sums over a long period of time is not living up to this standard.”
Speaking in Tel Aviv, Mr. Netanyahu did not dispute that he had accepted gifts from Mr. Milchan, the Hollywood producer, and James Packer, an Australian billionaire, but he accused the police of inflating their value in order to reach what he called “a magic number,” the figure of one million shekels, or about $283,000.
While the police portrayed his connection to the Israeli-born Mr. Milchan as “a bribery relationship,” Mr. Netanyahu insisted they were longtime friends. And he said investigators had ignored two instances, involving an automotive company and a television channel, in which his actions had been adverse to Mr. Milchan’s business interests.
“How could I on the one hand be acting in Milchan’s favor and on the other against him?” Mr. Netanyahu asked.
Regardless of whether Mr. Netanyahu survives the scandal, many have warned that his efforts to sow doubts about the fairness and professionalism of Israeli law enforcement investigators could do lasting damage.
“When Ehud Olmert was forced to leave his post after an indictment was issued, that happened with full public confidence in the law enforcement agencies,” the journalist Ben-Dror Yemini wrote in an op-ed article in Yedioth Ahronoth. “If Netanyahu is forced to leave his post in the coming number of months, that will happen amid an awful crisis of confidence among his supporters, who aren’t exactly a negligible minority.”world
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