The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Netanyahu, winning reelection could be the only way to avoid corruption charges

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Sept. 10. (Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg News)

For the second time in five months, Israelis went to the polls on Tuesday to decide whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will maintain his grip on power. A narrow win for Netanyahu in April failed to produce a governing coalition and led to the unprecedented do-over.

But for Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, the election is about more than just keeping his seat. Winning could be the only way he avoids criminal prosecution.

Looming over Netanyahu are potential charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced in February that he intended to indict Netanyahu on the charges, which stem from three separate cases in which he allegedly agreed to political favors in exchange for gifts, in one case, and, in the other two, favorable media coverage.

But even if he emerges from Tuesday’s vote as the victor, Netanyahu could become the first sitting Israeli prime minister to stand trial.

With heavy voter turnout, Israelis are deciding whether Netanyahu stays or goes

Analysts say this possibility is what prompted the prime minister to call for early elections in December.

“He wanted to try and head off the indictments — if he could win an election before they were announced, he would have a stronger platform from which to face the indictments,” said Yael Mizrahi-Arnaud, a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think tank.

In the first case, called Case 1000, Mandelblit alleges that Netanyahu accepted almost $280,000 worth of gifts, including champagne and cigars, from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. In exchange, Netanyahu allegedly helped Milchan, an Israeli citizen, extend his U.S. visa and asked his finance minister at the time for income tax exemptions to benefit Milchan.

In Case 2000, prosecutors allege that a conversation recorded by one of Netanyahu’s close aides reveals the prime minister making a deal with Arnon Mozes, publisher of Israel’s most largely circulated newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth. Netanyahu is alleged to have told Mozes he would pass a law to weaken the newspaper’s rival in exchange for favorable news coverage. No such law was ever passed.

In the final and perhaps most serious case, Case 4000, Netanyahu faces a bribery charge along with charges of fraud and breach of trust for allegedly easing regulations to benefit the Israeli telecommunications giant Bezeq. In exchange, Bezeq’s majority shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, allegedly offered Netanyahu favorable coverage on his news website Walla.

Netanyahu should be indicted on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, Israel’s attorney general recommends

The prime minister has branded all three cases a baseless “witch hunt.” and his attorneys accused Mandelblit of interfering with elections by announcing his intention to indict during a campaign season.

Under Israeli law, Netanyahu cannot be officially indicted until he states his case at a pre-indictment hearing, scheduled for Oct. 2.

If he should win reelection, the looming indictments will be a “key consideration in terms of forming a government that would enable him to insulate himself from legal proceedings,” said David Makovsky, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

If his party clinches a majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Netanyahu could pass two laws that might protect him from prosecution, at least while he remains prime minister. One is an already-proposed immunity law that would grant any lawmaker immunity from prosecution unless a Knesset committee explicitly votes to rescind that protection.

The other legislation would forbid the country’s High Court of Justice from scrutinizing parliamentary decisions, should the court decide to question the legality of the immunity law.

Mizrahi-Arnaud said there are fears that such moves would “inflict irreversible damage to Israel’s judicial and law enforcement agencies.”

Even if Netanyahu faces trial as prime minister, he could remain in power for a very long time. Israeli law does not require him to step down unless convicted, with all appeals exhausted, a process that could take years.

And the legal woes have already had an effect on Netanyahu’s governing inclinations. The looming indictments have changed the way the politically savvy prime minister operates. While he used to navigate the middle, Netanyahu is now looking to his right-wing base for domestic protection and shunning compromises with his opponents on the left, Makovsky said.

“The allegations are the X factor in these elections,” Makovsky said. “Now it’s more about his personal legal situation in a way it never has been."