A key partner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition has offered explicit backing to the Israel Police as investigators move ahead in two graft probes against Netanyahu.
“Mr. Commissioner, keep going,” Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, head of the Kulanu party, said in a speech on Monday at a Hanukkah candlelighting ceremony with Border Police officers. Israel’s top cop, Commissioner Rony Alsheich, was in the audience, as was Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, whose ministry oversees the police.
“We in the government, in the Finance Ministry, in all the [government] institutions, support the police and the rule of law,” Kahlon said. “Keep doing the important work that you’re doing.”
Kahlon’s comments, first reported Wednesday by Hadashot television news, come amid growing tension between police investigators and Netanyahu’s political and parliamentary allies.
Netanyahu is a suspect in two corruption investigations, known as cases 1000 and 2000. In the first, Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are suspected of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, most notably hundreds of thousands of shekels’ worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
The prime minister has been questioned seven times by police, most recently on Friday. He has denied wrongdoing in both cases.
His allies in the Knesset, most notably Likud MK David Amsalem and outgoing coalition whip MK David Bitan — who stepped down from the powerful position Wednesday amid his own corruption investigation — have proposed legislation that would bar police officers investigating public figures from publicizing their recommendations for indictment.
In an address to a rally of Likud party members on Tuesday, Netanyahu dismissed the expected police recommendation to the attorney general that charges be pressed against him as meaningless.
“If there will be recommendations [to indict] — so what?” Netanyahu said. “Here’s a fact I doubt the public knows: The vast majority of police recommendations end with nothing. More than 60% of police recommendations [to indict] are thrown out” — that is, do not result in the filing of an indictment by state prosecutors.
Amsalem, author of the so-called police recommendations bill, has placed the number of cases thrown out by prosecutors despite police recommendations for indictment even higher, at 80%.
On Wednesday, top law enforcement officials told Hadashot that Netanyahu and Amsalem were using misleading figures, as over 80% of public service corruption cases where police recommend indictments result in said indictments, and not, as Netanyahu claimed, 40%.
The officials said the same was true for other types of crimes as well, where roughly 70% of cases in which police recommend an indictment end up in court.
One top police official, who was not named by Hadashot, reportedly told the television station’s longtime crime reporter Moshe Nussbaum on Wednesday: “We will say our piece in the investigation report and the public recommendations. Maybe then the public will understand why the prime minister sounded so angry and anxious yesterday.”
Netanyahu’s dismissal of the corruption probes drew disapproval from Public Security Minister Erdan on Wednesday, but support from other coalition partners.
“I am not satisfied with all of his statements, and I am not satisfied with the style or the interpretation that can emerge from these statements,” Erdan said in the Knesset plenum.
“I say from this podium that I think the police are doing their job and I do not question their handling” of the investigations, he said, but added that there was “some truth” to Netanyahu’s remarks, which required a more “in-depth explanation to the public.”
Meanwhile, other ministers from the Likud and Jewish Home coalition parties lined up in support of the prime minister in a series of morning radio interviews.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party, dismissed criticism that the style of the prime minister’s address — which also saw Netanyahu slam the media and claim Tel Aviv anti-corruption protests were funded by the New Israel Fund — was unbefitting and brash.
“Never mind the style [of his speech] — I’m not Hannah Bavli,” Bennett told Israel Radio on Wednesday morning, referring to the late Israeli advice columnist and decorum expert. “The prime minister is correct in his statement — 80% of the cases that are handed over from police to prosecutors are ultimately closed.”
The prime minister’s speech drew accusations from the opposition that the he was aiming to discredit Israel’s law enforcement authorities. Some accused Netanyahu of seeking to hurt public trust in the police in order to protect his political position.
“As far as you’re concerned, if you’re not leading the country — there shouldn’t be a country,” MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) told Netanyahu from the podium of the Knesset plenum on Wednesday. “I didn’t see a prime minister [delivering Netanyahu’s address] yesterday, I saw a suspected criminal. We won’t let you burn the place to the ground.”
Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid echoed the sentiment, saying Netanyahu’s address “wasn’t the Netanyahu I once knew. Something has happened that puts us all in danger. These are the behavior patterns of criminals. Criminals always do the same thing when they’re accused — they insist nothing happened and then threaten the investigators.”
Labor party leader Avi Gabbay responded on Tuesday night, shortly after Netanyahu’s speech. “Instead of telling the public ‘I made a mistake,’ or ‘I acted incorrectly,’ the prime minister again prefers to attack the police,” he said. “It wasn’t the police that accepted $200,000 worth of gifts, it was you [Netanyahu].”
But Netanyahu had his defenders too.
Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin denied the prime minister’s address was designed to undercut police.
“There was no attack on law enforcement authorities in the prime minister’s speech,” Elkin told Army Radio. “Just like the police can say what they think, Netanyahu is allowed to respond.”
Culture Minister Miri Regev, also of the Likud party, told Army Radio the prime minister was unperturbed by the expected police recommendations.
“The prime minister is not feeling pressured, he seems very calm and is handling things well,” she said.
The Tuesday speech also saw Netanyahu liken himself to President Reuven Rivlin, who was investigated in seven cases but never faced charges. The comparison was swiftly rejected by sources in the President’s Residence, who stressed that police never recommended the then-Likud MK face charges, contrary to Netanyahu’s suggestion, and that all probes into his affairs were closed due to “lack of guilt,” police parlance for the closure of an investigation that concludes the suspect is innocent.
“These recommendations will be thrown aside and will end with nothing. And I say this for a simple reason: There will be nothing because there was nothing,” Netanyahu said, employing an oft-repeated mantra.
Shortly after the speech, senior police officials told the Ynet news site that the prime minister’s speech was “very strange.”
“Apparently Netanyahu was directing his remarks to the attorney general because he knows what is in the file,” the sources, who were not named, were quoted as saying.
Officials said the investigation into the prime minister’s gift-taking was about to turn into an investigation into bribery, which was the reason for the delay in publicizing the recommendations.
The speech came days before the Knesset was set to pass the so-called police recommendations bill into law. The proposal has been revised to exclude Netanyahu’s cases, amid an uproar.
Marissa Newman contributed to this report.