TEL AVIV, Israel — Israeli police recommended charging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two separate cases, a decision that could spark the biggest fight of his political life.
Police say they found evidence Netanyahu traded his influence for favors, a nonbinding conclusion that Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit will have to weigh as he decides whether to file charges against a sitting Israeli premier for the first time. Netanyahu, who years ago survived two prior police recommendations to indict him, has denied any wrongdoing and claims he’s the victim of a witch hunt by left-wing opponents.
For more than a year, detectives have been investigating circumstances surrounding cigars, champagne and other gifts Netanyahu has acknowledged accepting from wealthy friends, including Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian businessman James Packer. They have also investigated an unconsummated deal the prime minister discussed with Arnon Mozes, publisher of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, to pass legislation that would weaken another daily in exchange for more favorable coverage.
Netanyahu denied the allegations in a press conference Tuesday night, calling the police recommendations “disturbed” and claiming the investigations were intended to topple his government.
The recommendation to indict was anticipated, and coalition partners have rallied around a prime minister still popular with his right-wing base. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has said Netanyahu can continue to govern even if Mandelblit ultimately decides to indict him.
“We might see some political turmoil, but I think the government is quite stable. I don’t see any weak part of the chain here,” said Eran Vigoda-Gadot, a political science professor at the Haifa University. “It’s important to realize that Netanyahu’s political base is very loyal, these are people with an emotional connection to the Likud party. They’ll say ‘So what if he took some gifts and some money? He’s a brilliant English speaker who knows how to represent us in the world stage.’ ”
Vigoda-Gadot predicted it will take several weeks for Mandelblit to make a decision. If he decides to indict Netanyahu, court proceedings could drag out for a year.
In a video clip posted earlier this month on Facebook, Netanyahu jeered at the anticipated police action.
“There will be recommendations, and also signs reading, ‘Bibi is guilty until proven otherwise,’ ” he said, using his nickname. “But I’m certain that at the end of the day, legal authorities can only reach one conclusion, the simple truth: There’s nothing here.”
The investigations have dominated the national debate and polarized Israel’s already fractious politics, with Netanyahu accusing opponents of acting in concert with the “left-wing media” to topple his government.
His dismissive accusations of “fake news” and his denunciations of the police have echoed U.S. President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media, the FBI, and special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, in an early-February television interview, said someone “powerful” had hired private investigators to look into senior police officers handling the Netanyahu case. The prime minister called the claim “outlandish” and cited it as evidence of police bias against him.
Two bigger corruption cases have edged close to Netanyahu without directly entangling him as a suspect. Confidants — including his personal lawyer and the lead negotiator in some of Israel’s most delicate diplomacy of recent years — are suspected of wrongdoing in a $2.5 billion deal to purchase submarines and patrol boats from Germany’s ThyssenKrupp AG. Separately, the director-general of the Communications Ministry, a Netanyahu appointee, was suspended after being accused of coordinating regulatory moves with Bezeq Israeli Telecommunication Corp., controlled by Netanyahu’s friend Shaul Elovitch.
Netanyahu is no stranger to investigations. In 1997, during his first term, police wanted him to stand trial in an influence-peddling case involving the appointment of an attorney general. While he was between terms, police recommended in 2000 that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, be prosecuted on suspicion of bribery and theft of state gifts. Neither set of recommendations ripened into charges, with attorneys general citing insufficient evidence to indict.
Israel in recent years has grown accustomed to seeing senior officials investigated. Its last four prime ministers have all been probed, and police recommended indicting Ariel Sharon when he was still in office, although the attorney general dropped the case. Netanyahu’s immediate predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was sent to jail for bribery and obstruction of justice after stepping down to fight the allegations against him, and former President Moshe Katsav served a five-year sentence for rape.