Political rivals of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called on him to resign and urged immediate elections after Israel Police’s bombshell recommendation for a bribery indictment against the premier in the Bezeq corruption probe, known as Case 4000.
Investigators said Sunday they believed there was enough evidence to bring Netanyahu to trial on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust and fraudulently accepting benefits. It is the third case in which police have recommended bribery charges against the prime minister.
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) said that “Netanyahu has to go before he destroys law enforcement bodies to save his own skin. The Israeli nation deserves clean leadership.”
Livni and Zionist Union faction chairman Yoel Hasson both called for the government to be disbanded and for immediate elections to be called.
“Netanyahu, your time is up,” Hasson wrote in a tweet. “Israel must hold elections, not in November [as scheduled] nor in May, but immediately. Benjamin Netanyahu, who is neck-deep in investigations and suspicions, must resign today and not even run in the upcoming elections.”
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid called on the ruling Likud party to remove Netanyahu from his position until new elections could be held.
“This is a sad day, sad for all Israeli citizens… as well as for all those who have known Netanyahu for dozens of years like myself and others, and saw the process of corruption caused by too many years in power,” Lapid said in a statement.
The leader of the opposition party said Israel “deserves more” than to be run by a prime minister immersed in legal troubles. “Likud needs to choose someone else from its ranks who will lead the country to elections that will come soon.”
Tamar Zandberg, who leads the left-wing Meretz party, also called on Netanyahu to step down.
“A third bribery recommendation leaves no room for doubt,” she said in a statement. “A prime minister suspected of the most grave offense in the Israeli lawbook for public officials cannot sit another single day on his seat. Netanyahu should resign today and Israel should go to elections immediately.”
Investigators said that Netanyahu advanced regulatory decisions benefiting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm — despite opposition from the Communication Ministry’s career officials — in exchange for positive coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site. At the time, the prime minister was also serving as acting communications minister.
In a blistering accusation, police said “the prime minister and his associates intervened in a blatant and ongoing manner, and sometimes even daily, in the content published by the Walla News website, and also sought to influence the appointment of senior officials (editors and reporters) via their contacts with Shaul and Iris Elovitch,” the Bezeq owner’s wife.
“The main suspicion is that the prime minister took bribes and acted with a conflict of interest by intervening and acting in regulatory decisions that favor Shaul Elovitch and the Bezeq Group, and at the same time directly and indirectly demanded interference with the content of the Walla site in a way that would benefit him,” police said in a joint statement with the Israel Securities Authority, which also took part in the nine-month investigation.
Netanyahu denied the allegations Sunday, accusing the police of a conspiracy against him.
“The police recommendations regarding me and my wife don’t surprise anyone, nor does the transparent timing of their publication,” he said in a statement.
“These recommendations were set and leaked before the investigations even started,” he added. “Police recommendations have no legal standing. Just recently the relevant authorities rejected outright police recommendations against a series of public officials. I’m sure that in this case as well, the relevant authorities, after checking the matter, will reach the same conclusion — that there isn’t anything because nothing happened.”
Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel issued a statement supporting Netanyahu: “I’ve known the prime minister for 20 years. He isn’t corrupt and the only thing guiding him is the benefit of the state. I’m sure the attorney general won’t accept [the recommendation].”
Other Likud members railed at outgoing Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, whose tenure ends Monday, and who was lambasted throughout the past year by Netanyahu, including accusations that he leaked damning information to the press and was conducting a “witch hunt” against the prime minister and his family.
“Police are continuing to cross all the lines. Alsheich wanted to give Netanyahu a parting gift,” MK Miki Zohar told Army Radio, alleging that the outgoing police commissioner “severely pressured Lahav 433,” the police anti-corruption squad, to arrive at the conclusions published Sunday.
Coalition whip David Amsalem similarly said in a statement that “what’s most surprising is the perfect timing!”
During Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting, Transportation Minister Israel Katz “offered his support to the prime minister on behalf of the whole cabinet,” according to Netanyahu’s spokesperson, to which the premier responded, “Thank you but you seem to be taking this more seriously than me.”
The leader of the Jewish Home party, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, issued a cryptic response to the news.
“I understand that I was [what he received] in return,” he said, in a statement what was widely interpreted to imply that negative stories about him on the Walla site were part of the deal that Netanyahu sealed with Elovitch.
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, Bennett’s colleague in Jewish Home, said: “I hope the recommendation will prove incorrect, and that the prime minister will be acquitted and will continue [serving] to the benefit of the State of Israel.”
The summary of the investigation also included a recommendation to charge Sara Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and for “disruption of investigative and judicial proceedings,” as well as bribery charges for Shaul Elovitch and his wife, Iris.
Netanyahu is also a suspect in two other corruption probes, cases 1000 and 2000, two investigations in which police have already recommended bribery indictments.
In Case 1000, the so-called “gifts scandal,” Netanyahu is suspected of “systematically” demanding benefits worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors, including Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian resort owner James Packer, in exchange for favors.
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 work to weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing in all of the cases, insisting the gifts were given by friends and were not bribes, and that he never intended to act on his conversations with Mozes.
The recommendations now go to the Attorney General’s Office, where they will first be reviewed by the state prosecutor before going to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
Mandelblit, who will make the final decision whether to indict the prime minister, intends to examine all three cases at the same time, which will be possible only after he receives the state attorney’s recommendations based on the final police reports.
That process puts the likely date of any final word on whether a trial may be in Netanyahu’s future in late 2019 — possibly after the next Knesset elections, which are currently slated for November 2019 but may very well be held earlier.
Coalition partners have previously said that they would not leave the government unless a full indictment was filed against the prime minister, but recent crises may have shifted allegiances the coalition after it was reduced last month to a paper-thin majority last month of just 61 out of 120 MKs.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.