It is business as usual for govt, says Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) arriving ahead of a planned address at the Muni World 2018 conference in Tel Aviv yesterday. He sought to assure Israelis that the coalition government remained stable and would continue to govern des
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) arriving ahead of a planned address at the Muni World 2018 conference in Tel Aviv yesterday. He sought to assure Israelis that the coalition government remained stable and would continue to govern despite police recommendations that he be indicted for bribery.PHOTO: REUTERS

Israeli PM defiant in face of police call to charge him with graft

JERUSALEM • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday said his coalition government remained stable and would continue to govern despite police recommendations that he be indicted for bribery.

"I want to reassure you, the coalition is stable. No one, not I, not anyone else, has plans to go to an election. We will continue to work with you for the good of Israel's citizens until the end of the term," Mr Netanyahu said at a conference in Tel Aviv.

His remarks came the morning after Israeli police made public their recommendations, presenting Mr Netanyahu with one of the biggest challenges in his political career. It is now up to Israel's Attorney-General to decide whether to file charges.

That decision could be months away, giving Mr Netanyahu - who denies any wrongdoing - time to shore up his ranks even further.

Although some of his coalition partners have shown no inclination to see his government crumble, others have signalled they may have second thoughts if Attorney-General Avihai Mandelblit does choose to indict a sitting Israeli premier for the first time.

After a year-long investigation, Israeli police on Tuesday said they have found evidence Mr Netanyahu traded his influence for favours.

One of the cases, known as Case 1000, alleged the "committing of crimes of bribery, fraud and breach of trust by the Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu".

LOYAL BASE

It's important to realise that Netanyahu's political base is very loyal, these are people with an emotional connection to the Likud Party.

DR ERAN VIGODA-GADOT, a political science professor at Haifa University.

Police named Mr Arnon Milchan, a Hollywood producer and Israeli citizen, and Australian businessman James Packer, saying they gave gifts that included champagne, cigars and jewellery to Mr Netanyahu and his family.

In all, the merchandise was worth more than one million shekels (S$374,000), the statement said.

Any legal proceedings would likely focus on whether political favours were sought or granted. Mr Netanyahu's lawyers said the presents were simply tokens of friendship.

In an e-mailed statement on Tuesday, after the police recommendations were made public, a spokesman for Mr Packer said: "There is no allegation of wrongdoing on Mr Packer's behalf. The Israeli and Australian police have confirmed that he was interviewed as a witness, not a suspect."

The second, Case 2000, also alleged "bribery, fraud and breach of trust by the prime minister" relating to his dealings with Mr Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the biggest-selling Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth.

The two men, police said, discussed ways of slowing the growth of a rival daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, "through legislation and other means".

Police said they believed there was sufficient evidence to charge Mr Mozes with offering a bribe.

After the recommendations were released, opposition politicians called on Mr Netanyahu to resign but members of Mr Netanyahu's Likud Party lined up behind him, echoing the Prime Minister's contention that he is the victim of a political witchhunt orchestrated by left-wing opponents in collusion with the media.

"We might see some political turmoil, but I think the government is quite stable," said Dr Eran Vigoda-Gadot, a political science professor at Haifa University.

"It's important to realise 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 on the world stage.'"

Mr Netanyahu was critical of the police in his remarks yesterday, as he has been for months.

"After reading the recommendations report, I can say that it is a biased, extreme document full of holes, like Swiss cheese," Mr Netanyahu said.

"I am certain, as I have always been certain, and nothing has changed, that the truth will come to light and nothing will come of this."

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG


Highlights from the police investigation

ILLICIT GIFTS

THE ALLEGATIONS: That Mr Benjamin Netanyahu accepted nearly US$300,000 (S$396,000) in gifts between 2007 and 2016 from two businessmen, Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan (left) and Australian billionaire James Packer (below) - gifts that grew in "scope and frequency" after Mr Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009.

A BIG TAX BREAK: Mr Netanyahu tried to pass legislation that would double, to 20 years, the duration of a tax exemption for Israelis returning home from overseas, which would have "vast financial value to Milchan". This was rejected by the finance ministry, then headed by Mr Yair Lapid, now a chief opponent of Mr Netanyahu's.

VISA TROUBLE: Mr Netanyahu lobbied then US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro to help Mr Milchan deal with a problem he had of extending his visa, which had "far-reaching financial significance" for the producer.

A TV CHANNEL STAKE: In his capacity as communications minister, Mr Netanyahu tried to help Mr Milchan become a shareholder in Israeli television's Channel 2.

TATA: The Prime Minister tried to aid a project Mr Milchan was pursuing with Indian billionaire Ratan Tata, identified in Israeli news reports as a free-trade zone proposed near the Israeli-Jordanian border. The defence ministry opposed it, and the project went nowhere.

BACKROOM DEALS

THE ALLEGATIONS: Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arnon Mozes, publisher of Yediot Aharonot, one of Israel's leading newspapers, struck a "barter deal" in 2009 to advance their interests. In theory, Mr Netanyahu would get positive and supportive coverage from Yediot Aharonot. (Whether that happened is unclear.) Mr Mozes would get Mr Netanyahu's support in promoting Yediot Aharonot, including help to curb the strength of Israel Hayom, a free newspaper owned by Mr Sheldon Adelson, a supporter of Mr Netanyahu's, and that had become a powerful competitor to Yediot.

CRUCIAL EVIDENCE: Audio recordings of meetings between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Mozes were made secretly on the cellphone of Mr Ari Harow, Mr Netanyahu's former chief of staff, now a government witness.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2018, with the headline 'It is business as usual for govt, says Netanyahu'. Print Edition | Subscribe