After months of anticipation, the prospect of indicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over corruption charges seems closer, with preparations reviving only 40 days before he seeks re-election for his fourth consecutive term.
On Thursday, Israel’s attorney general Avichai Mandelblit, appointed by Netanyahu, announced his intention to indict the PM, for allegedly relaxing regulatory norms for a telecom firm in exchange for positive media coverage in 2015.
Not a final decision on an indictment, this is nonetheless a major blow to the long-serving premier and Trump ally, posing the greatest peril to his political future so far.
Having outlasted three American presidents and shaped policies for the entire Middle East, Netanyahu is now poised to be the first sitting Israeli PM to be indicted.
The attorney generals decision immediately prompted calls from the left and for his resignation.
Netanyahu, 69, still has a chance to hold off any indictment as he is entitled to a court hearing during which he fully intends to fight tooth and nail, to challenge all the charges and prevent the case from proceeding.
He addressed the nation Thursday night announcing he would not step down in the face of charges; in the meantime, Netanyahu claimed he will remain in office and seek reelection on April 9 as scheduled.
He further blamed the prosecution for being politically motivated by his leftwing opposition and the media, who have propped up former army chief Benny Gantz as a stiff challenger in the upcoming polls.
Netanyahu has dismissed all the allegations as baseless in the past, calling them ‘unsurprising’ last year. The witch hunt against us continues, he told a gathering of activists from his Likud party during the Jewish holiday Hanukkah.
The AG’s announcement comes after a two-year-long investigation into Netanyahu’s shady dealings with wealthy businessmen, and after repeated recommendations by the Israeli police to move bribery, fraud and breach-of-trust charges against the first couple.
Mandelblit has accused Netanyahu and his wife Sarah of trading lucrative official favors for gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars including cigars, Champagne and jewelry, and for flattering news coverage which has had impact on the last polls.
The PM has allegedly traded numerous official with wealthy businessmen, including a Hollywood movie producer, Israeli newspaper publishers and the head of the countrys largest telecommunications conglomerate, all of which form the basis of all the charges. But the most serious allegation which forms the primary grounds for indictment is bribery for electoral gains.
In the case now referred to as Case 4000, the are alleged to have been given more positive coverage on Walla! news website, owned by Israeli telecom firm Bezeq before the 2015 elections.
The first couple has been accused of interfering in regulatory decisions and went out of their way to aid Bezeq and its majority shareholder Shaul Elovitch, in return for softening or suppressing negative press for the incumbent PM, and treating his opponents more roughly. There is evidence, claims the prosecution, to prove that Elovitch had been compensated for the coverage, which would amount to the bribery and breach of trust charges.
According to the New York Times, Mandelblit said on Thursday that Netanyahu demanded that Walla publish prominently, on Election Day in 2015, his now-notorious video warning to right-wing supporters that Arabs were heading to the polls in droves an appeal for which the prime minister later .
What about the two other cases?
This follows a series of other evidence against the embattled PM that suggests similar favours traded with media organisations and Hollywood moguls.
One of them again alleges fawning of news coverage against the sitting PM, where Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot did Netanyahus bidding for good press, in exchange for his governments help to rein in a rival publication.
In the second case, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving gifts of champagne and cigars worth a million shekels ($270,000) from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan in exchange for help in getting him a US visa.
In February, the state police had for the first time recommended indicting Netanyahu, a close ally of President Donald Trumps in the Middle East, in both of these corruption investigations.
Why it matters
The AG’s announcement deals a heavy blow to Netanyahus fragile ruling coalition that narrowly escaped collapse last year and is currently powered by a one-vote majority in Parliament.
While the country may be gearing up for early legislative polls in the wake of political and territorial conflict, mounting charges against the third-term PM stand to reduce his chances of return.
The governments handling of the simmering conflict with the Palestinian territory of Gaza has left tens of thousands dead, led to the resignation of defence minister Avigdor Lieberman and continues to be decried all over the world. Recently, Israel also played a huge role in India’s escalating conflict with Pakistan recently.
After the IAF-led retaliatory air strike on a Jaish camp in Balakot, Pakistan, the Indian media trumpeted the fact that Israeli-manufactured and Israeli-supplied GPS-guided Rafael Spice-2000 “smart bombs” had been used to allegedly eliminate “300-400 terrorists”. Israel too came out in support of India’s hardline stance against Pakistan, in condemnation of the Pulwama terror attack.
Robert Fisk, for The Independent said, “For months, Israel has been assiduously lining itself up alongside Indias nationalist BJP government in an unspoken and politically dangerous anti-Islamist coalition, an unofficial, unacknowledged alliance, while India itself has now become the largest weapons market for the Israeli arms trade.
In 2017, India was Israels largest arms client paying £530m for Israeli air , radar systems ammunition, including air-to-ground missiles most of them tested during Israels military offensives against Palestinians and targets in Syria.
Tel Aviv is even to continue its sale of tanks, weapons boats to the Myanmar military dictatorship, even as western nations demand justice for the extra-judicial measures against Rohingya Muslims that led to their mass exodus in 2017.
Far away, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also faces a tough re-election this October, owing to a similar political scandal involving charges of corruption brought against him by his former justice minister, resulting in avid calls for his resignation.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius