JERUSALEM — Israeli police on Sunday recommended indicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery and corruption in a third case — this time on suspicion that the leader eased business regulations for the country’s largest telecommunications company in exchange for favorable coverage for him and his wife on a popular news website owned by the firm.
Police have also recommended that media mogul Shaul Elovitch — a close friend of Netanyahu and the majority shareholder in Bezeq, the telecoms firm that owns the news site Walla — be indicted for his alleged role in the affair. Elovitch’s wife, Iris, and Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, were also implicated in the case, known as Case 4000.
While it is now up to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to formally prosecute those involved, Sunday’s announcement ramps up pressure on Netanyahu, who faces a raft of legal woes and who, in coming months, could find himself in the throes of early national elections after the departure last month of a key partner in his governing coalition.
His opponents on Sunday called for him to resign as soon as possible in light of the allegations, which follow police recommendations last February to charge him in two other corruption cases, and yet another case against his wife for alleged breach of public trust.
Netanyahu questioned the timing and veracity of Sunday’s announcement, accusing police of leaking parts of the investigation even before any conclusions were reached.
“Police recommendations have no legal status,” he said in a statement. “Only recently, police recommendations in cases against other public figures were rejected by the relevant authorities. I am certain that after considering the matters the same conclusion will be reached in this case as well.”
Netanyahu reiterated a phrase he has used since the investigations against him were launched more than two years ago — “that there was nothing because there is nothing.”
When police initially said he should be charged, Netanyahu said it was an attempt by his opponents to unseat him through corruption allegations because they couldn’t win at the ballot box. Now he appears to be facing the challenge of both — legal charges and an election.
“The question is what will happen first: Will the attorney general decide to prosecute, or will the government collapse?” said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “If there is an election first and Netanyahu wins with everyone knowing about his legal issues, then he can say that despite knowledge of the legal battles, the people still want him.”
If the indictment comes first, it is unclear whether Netanyahu will be able to remain prime minister.
In a statement Sunday, police said they had evidence that from 2014 to 2017, while Netanyahu served as minister of communications as well as prime minister, he intervened with regulators to help Bezeq merge with another large Israeli communications company. In exchange, Elovitch instructed journalists at Walla to provide favorable coverage of the prime minister and his wife, according to the statement.
“Netanyahu and his associates intervened in a blatant and ongoing manner, sometimes even daily, in the content published by the Walla News website and sought to influence the appointment of senior employees (editors and reporters),” police said.
The website was used to promote the prime minister’s personal interests by publishing flattering articles and pictures and removing critical content about him and his family, the police statement said.
Netanyahu’s alleged manipulation of Walla has been widely reported by local media, but last week a fuller exposé on Israel’s Channel 10 featured both former and present employees of the news site describing in detail how stories were changed or completely removed if they were not favorable to the prime minister and his wife.
Avi Gabbay, chairman of the opposition Zionist Union party, called for the prime minister to step down immediately. “A person with such a sickly obsession with what the media says about him must not lead the State of Israel,” he said. “Every day he continues in his position [brings] harm to the citizens of this country.”
In the two other cases in which the police have recommended indictments, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving bribes in exchange for favors.
The first case, referred to as Case 1000, involves gifts of cigars and jewelry bestowed by billionaire benefactors such as Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, whose film credits include “Fight Club” and “Pretty Woman,” and Australian business executive James Packer.
The other case, 2000, involves deals made between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, publisher of the popular Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. Information leaked to the Israeli media suggested the agreement would have allowed the prime minister to receive more-favorable coverage from the newspaper if he agreed to weaken the status of rival daily newspaper Israel Hayom, owned by U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
In November, police announced that Netanyahu was not a suspect in an additional case, 3000, involving the dubious purchase of naval vessels from a German shipbuilder. Indictments were recommended, however, against some of the prime minister’s close associates, including his cousin and attorney David Shimron.
Sara Netanyahu is also a suspect in a different corruption case. Last June, she was formally charged by state prosecutors with fraud and breach of public trust for ordering meals to the official prime minister’s residence worth a total of $99,000, even though a full-time chef was employed there. An initial hearing has already been held in that case.