JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be indicted in two corruption cases on suspicion of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust, police recommended Tuesday, ramping up pressure on the leader who has served more than a decade in office.
The announcement will amplify calls by Netanyahu’s opponents for him to resign and will likely complicate his ability to govern at a time when security officials are warning of an increasing likelihood of war on the country’s northern border and impending economic collapse in the Gaza Strip.
In a televised address to the nation, Netanyahu said Tuesday night that he would not give up without a fight, stressing his security credentials and striking a confident and sometimes combative tone as he maintained his innocence.
“I will continue to lead Israel with responsibility and dedication and loyalty,” he said, pointing out that only half of the police recommendations end with an indictment. “I’m sure that the truth will come to light, and I’m sure that also in the next elections I will once again win your loyalty.”
The police recommendations, however, raise questions about whether Netanyahu, now in his fourth term, will be able to maintain his coalition and cling to power. Ministers from his party have rushed to support him amid the allegations, but a recent poll by an Israeli television channel said that 60 percent of Israelis thought Netanyahu should resign if police recommended bribery charges.
The first case, referred to as Case 1000, has involved gifts of cigars and jewelry that the prime minister and his wife, Sara, are suspected of receiving from billionaire benefactors such as Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, whose film credits include “Fight Club” and “Pretty Woman,” and Australian businessman James Packer. Police said there is also enough evidence to build a case against Milchan for bribery. Milchan did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
The other case, 2000, involves deals made between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, publisher of the popular Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. According to information leaked to the Israeli media, the agreement apparently 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.
“I work for the good of the nation,” Netanyahu said. “Not for cigars, not for press coverage, not for anything, only the good of the country.”
The announcement came days after Israel says it shot down an Iranian drone that had crossed its border. Netanyahu said Tuesday that he works “around-the-clock,” including “when the red phone rings, and in our country, that happens quite a lot.”
As the investigations have circled closer, Netanyahu has repeatedly attacked the police, accusing them of being politically motivated and saying his opponents are trying to unseat him through corruption allegations because they can’t win at the ballot box.
His disparaging of the police and regular criticism of the media have drawn comparisons to how President Trump has handled the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Netanyahu has even borrowed from Trump’s phrase book, using the term “fake news” to describe media coverage. Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, has warned that the country’s democracy is in peril because of attacks on the free press and judiciary by Netanyahu’s right-wing government.
Friction between Netanyahu and the police has ramped up over the past week amid leaks that police were preparing to recommend an indictment. Opposition lawmaker Yoel Hasson urged Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in a letter to move quickly, pointing out that law enforcement authorities had been subject to “vicious attacks” and “harassment” from ministers and lawmakers since the investigation began.
However, the process could drag on for months, said Reuven Hazan, professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Tuesday’s recommendation was only the beginning and “definitely not the end,” he said.
Netanyahu “will find it difficult to govern because as feisty as he is and even though nobody is challenging him yet, the political system will begin to smell blood,” Hazan said. He said that if Netanyahu’s party is dragged down in opinion polls, it could oust him, or the allegations could split his coalition and force elections.
For the moment, his ministers are vociferously in support. Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, from Netanyahu’s Likud party, described the police action on Tuesday as a “despicable move” designed to “carry out a government coup against the will of the voter.”
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, leader of the second-biggest coalition party, Kulanu, said he would remain in the coalition until the attorney general makes a decision.
As allegations against Netanyahu have grown, so have weekly demonstrations calling on him to resign. But so far, they have drawn only a few thousand participants.
“Someone with such serious accusations against them, many of which he does not even deny, cannot continue to serve as prime minister with responsibility for the security and well-being of Israel’s citizens,” said Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition Yesh Atid party, which has been gaining popularity in public opinion polls.
While Netanyahu, who has weathered political storms in the past, may be able to survive the current allegations, another investigation, dubbed Case 3000, could have much more serious ramifications. It centers on a multibillion-dollar submarine deal with Germany. Though the prime minister has not been named as a suspect, members of his inner circle have been arrested and questioned.
Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was forced to resign in 2009 after being plagued by corruption allegations during his term. He was indicted shortly after his resignation and convicted in 2014.
In Case 1000, the prime minister is suspected of promoting an extension of a tax exemption for residents returning after 10 years, which would have had financial benefits for Milchan. Netanyahu is also accused of working to help Milchan obtain his visa to the United States, after it became difficult to extend it, by lobbying senior U.S. officials. Police allege that Netanyahu received more than $200,000 in gifts from Milchan.
In relation to the visa issue, Netanyahu said that it was his duty to lobby for a new visa for Milchan, as someone who had done so much for Israel, but that he did not do it in exchange for cigars.