Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won’t need to resign should he be charged in a criminal graft case, a powerful parliamentary ally said Sunday, as reports swirled of the existence of tapes in which Netanyahu is heard offering an Israeli businessman a quid pro quo.
Netanyahu was interrogated by police twice last week in an unspecified case reportedly dealing with gifts received from at least two businessmen.
Coalition head David Bitan, seen as a close Netanyahu confidant, said he was sure Netanyahu would not be indicted in the case, but he could remain in power even if so.
“There won’t be an indictment. But even if there’s some situation like that, which I don’t see happening, the prime minister, as opposed to a minister, can still remain in power,” Bitan told Army Radio Sunday morning.
The statement came after a report in the Haaretz newspaper Sunday morning that police have a series of audio recordings of Netanyahu that appear to corroborate suspicions of graft.
The evidence, the report said, doesn’t necessarily point at financial favors, but rather indicates an attempt to forge a “quid pro quo pact,” under which the unnamed businessman would help Netanyahu shore up his leadership and receive “achievements estimated to be worth a fortune” in return.
Although the report implied the “pact” may never have come to fruition, it said the details could “shed light on how decisions are made at the top” of Israeli government.
Bitan told Army Radio he had not heard the recording and didn’t know if it indeed existed.
“If so, it’s very serious that someone recorded the prime minister,” he said.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office declined a Times of Israel request to comment on the Haaretz report Sunday morning.
While experts say the prime minister does not by law have to step down if he is indicted, heads of government have in the past done so, including former prime minister Ehud Olmert, whose resignation paved the way for Netanyahu to take power and who was eventually jailed on a corruption conviction.
Netanyahu was questioned by police under caution on Thursday evening for five hours — the second such session in four days. Reports have mostly dealt with a separate investigation involving possibly illicit gifts that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, received from several businessmen, including expensive cigars and champagne.
Former justice minister Tzipi Livni, now an opposition MK with the Zionist Union faction, said while cigars and expensive champagne might not be enough to bring down Netanyahu on their own, if he is found to have methodically taken gifts for political favors, he should step down.
“A prime minister that gets up in the morning and asks what will I get today … doesn’t need to be prime minister,” she told the 103 FM radio station.
Erel Margalit, another Zionist Union lawmaker who has been spearheading a campaign for Netanyahu to face a criminal investigation, said Netanyahu should quit in the wake of the recordings.
“For half a year they’ve been telling us about cigars, housekeepers and everything else, when meanwhile lying right next to it was the largest corruption scandal we have known.”
The probe involving the reported recordings of the prime minister, rumored to have been dubbed Case 2,000, will be publicly damaging but is legally ambiguous, sources involved in the investigation told the country’s major broadcasters Friday.
One source told Channel 2 news that it would cause “a public storm” and “public anger” but would not necessarily lead to an indictment. It involved an Israeli businessman, the source said, who had sought to provide benefits to the Israeli leader in return for certain perks.
Channel 10 reported a similar assessment from investigative officials, with the broadcaster’s reporters being told the case was “juicy” and publicly harmful but complex and not straightforward as far as the law was concerned. It said the businessman was a “central” Israeli figure who wanted Netanyahu to “take a certain decision,” and would reward him in return, and that it was not clear whether Netanyahu had ultimately taken the decision.
Netanyahu’s lawyer Yaakov Weinroth on Friday rejected the notion that there was anything criminal in the prime minister’s actions, and said he had nothing to fear from Case 2,000.
At the core of the more widely reported investigation is the question of whether there have been illegal conflicts of interest on Netanyahu’s part in accepting gifts from businessmen and taking actions on their behalf.
Details of that investigation have been more forthcoming than those of Case 2,000, and reportedly include suspicions that the Netanyahus received cigars and champagne worth hundreds of thousands of shekels over many years from the Israeli film producer Arnon Milchan.
Channel 2 news reported on Saturday night that Netanyahu had asked US Secretary of State John Kerry three times in 2014 to pull strings for a long-term visa for Milchan to live in the United States. The visa for the Hollywood-based producer was indeed arranged.
The report said that Milchan’s gifts to Netanyahu began when he was opposition leader, and were not limited to cigars. There were suits, and meals cooked by private chefs, it said, and jewelry for Sara Netanyahu.
Weinroth, who consulted with his client at the end of Thursday’s questioning, said “there is nothing to the allegations” as regards to Milchan’s gifts. “Any reasonable person knows that there is nothing remotely criminal involved when a close friend gives his friend a gift of cigars,” he said.