ANALYSIS: Little Expected to Change in Israel, Despite Police Recommendations

Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After nearly a year of investigations, police on Tuesday night said that they would recommend that prosecutors pursue corruption and bribery charges against Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in two cases. And while the Israeli media treated the story in a sensational manner, little is expected to change in the Knesset and the government, at least in the short run, judging by the reactions of MKs, ministers, and political officials.

Likud and coalition MKs sided with PM Netanyahu, saying that police were being “used” by politicians opposing PM Netanyahu to try and remove him from office, after failing to do so at the ballot box. “The media festival surrounding the police recommendations, which has been going on for a year, reached its heights tonight,” government minister Ze’ev Elkin said in a statement. “It is another effort to exercise illegitimate pressure on the public to bring down the Prime Minister, against the will of the people and the intent of the law.” If the opposition was expecting the coalition to break apart or for a motion of no-confidence in PM Netanyahu to be carried in the Knesset, it was unlikely to happen, Yisrael Hayom said.

Meanwhile, opposition MKs were renewing their calls for new elections. Speaking to Channel Ten, Zionist Camp chairperson Avi Gabay said that “either by indictment or by resignation, the Netanyahu era is over.” The Prime Minister, he said, had lost his “moral right” to govern, and would not be able to hold his head up or get any business done either in the Knesset or abroad “with this cloud of guilt hovering above him. If he wants the best for the country, as he said in his speech tonight, he must resign immediately.”

The chief allegations against the Prime Minister are in two cases that have been under investigation for nearly a year: Case 1000, in which PM Netanyahu was accused of accepting extravagant gifts from millionaire Arnon Milchin, mostly cigars and champagne, and Case 2000, in which the Prime Minister allegedly leaned on the publishers of Yisrael Hayom to limit distribution of their free newspaper in order to benefit from better coverage in rival newspaper Yediot Achronot. Police also recommended that Milchin and Mozes be indicted for their roles in the cases. There is enough evidence against all three to pursue charges, police said in recommendations to prosecutors.

The police recommendations are just that; they have no legal standing, and justice officials are not bound to follow them, a fact that PM Netanyahu pointed out in an emotional response, broadcast live just minutes after the police recommendations were made public. “Statistically, more than half of the recommendations made by police are not pursued by justice officials,” PM Netanyahu said. “Over the years, there have been no fewer than 15 police investigations and inquiries against me, all attempts to remove me from office. Each of them started off with loud headlines and live broadcasts, some with police investigations, as is occurring tonight. Each and every one, without exception, ended with nothing. Because I know the truth, I tell you that the same will happen this time.”

In Case 1000, PM Netanyahu is accused of advancing the business interests of Milchin, in exchange for the benefits he received. According to police, the Netanyahus had an “open account” with Milchin, and ordered – of their own volition – cigars, champagne, and other items from messengers and delivery services, with the bill paid by Milchin. Milchin, an Israeli citizen, has been living in the United States on a visa that must be renewed every ten years. At one point, news stories pointed to Milchin as having worked with the Mossad, and the U.S. government had decided not to renew his visa. PM Netanyahu, investigators said, intervened with American authorities on behalf of Milchin. That quid pro quo – cigars and champagne in return for favors – constitutes bribery on both sides, police said in their recommendations.

Also named as having provided benefits to PM Netanyahu in exchange for favors is Australian businessman James Packer. Altogether, police said, the Netanyahus received over a million shekels in benefits from Milchin and Packer between 2007 and 2016.

In addition, PM Netanyahu is accused of advancing the unification of the Reshet and Keshet media networks, which would have benefited Milchin, who was a stockholder in Channel Ten. And in another effort to assist Milchin, police said that PM Netanyahu had encouraged the passage of a law that allows new immigrants and returning residents to bring assets with them from abroad and avoid reporting on them to Israeli tax authorities for ten years. This, too, was attributed as a favor by PM Netanyahu to Milchin, part of the quid pro quo between the two. It emerged that a key witness in this aspect of the case was none other than Yair Lapid, who was PM Netanyahu’s finance minister in the last government, and is today his chief rival for the Prime Minister’s position.

Commentators on Channel One said that it appeared that police had a less strong position in Case 2000, in which PM Netanyahu is accused of conspiring with Mozes to shut down Yisrael Hayom. The two, according to police, held numerous discussions about the matter, with the Prime Minister and Mozes both “taking specific steps” to advance the quid pro quo deal of better coverage for PM Netanyahu in Yediot Achronot in exchange for acting against Yisrael Hayom. Although a law to ban Yisrael Hayom never reached the Knesset for a vote, PM Netanyahu is accused of asking Yisrael Hayom’s publishers to limit distribution of the paper on Fridays, in order to benefit Yediot Achronot.

In his response, PM Netanyahu called all the accusations “ridiculous.” PM Netanyahu said that police had nearly a year ago set out what he would be charged with, before the investigations even began – and here, they had made the recommendations that they had “predicted. How can police under these circumstances conduct an objective investigation? How can they give objective recommendations? I am not surprised by any of this, and I am positive that when justice officials go through this material, they will come to the conclusion that it is ridiculous.”

PM Netanyahu pointed out specifics of what he felt was “ridiculous” about the case.He pointed out that he had actually lobbied for the closure of Channel Ten, a move that actually transpired and was against Milchin’s financial interests. As for the law to allow new immigrants to avoid reporting on their foreign earnings for ten years, it was supported by dozens of MKs and ministers – including Lapid himself, with PM Netanyahu pointing out that it was “interesting” that he was a star witness in the case. PM Netanyahu admitted that he had assisted Milchin with his visa, but that it was part of his job as Prime Minister, and that he done the same for many other people – and “especially for someone who had assisted Israel” with his work for the Mossad.

Lapid was the recipient of much vituperation Tuesday night. Speaking in the Knesset, and reflecting comments by other Likud MKs, Coalition chairperson David Amsalem called Lapid a “tattletale” who skipped out on IDF service (Lapid served in the army newspaper Bamachane during his stint). “You get NIS 40,000 a month and are barely ever here in the Knesset, you take the people’s money and travel the world, staying in fancy hotels and making yourself out to be Israel’s foreign minister. Who would even join a government you ran, given the science fiction scenario that you would win an election?”

PM Netanyahu himself made it clear that, as far as he was concerned, nothing had changed; the fact that police had announced their recommendations was irrelevant to the continued functioning of his government. “I stress the facts – that these recommendations have no legal standing in a democracy,” PM Netanyahu said. “This is a bedrock of our democracy. Israel is a land of laws, and under the law, police do not determine who is innocent or guilty. That is the job of the justice authorities. It would be bad for us if this was not the case. I am positive,” PM Netanyahu said, “that the truth will emerge. And I am positive that in the next elections, which will take place as scheduled in 2019, I will again merit the support of voters, b’ezras Hashem.”