Benjamin Netanyahu has won four elections and occupied the Israeli prime minister’s office for nearly 11 years — making him the longest-serving prime minister after David Ben-Gurion. But now, twin corruption investigations involving an alleged secret deal with a newspaper publisher and gift-taking from a Hollywood mogul threaten to undermine his hold on power.
In one case, Netanyahu is being investigated for allegedly accepting bribes in the form of a steady supply of fine Cuban cigars and champagne from film mogul Arnon Milchan, and possibly other wealthy business executives.
In the other graft case, the prime minister and the publisher of Israel’s largest paid circulation newspaper, Yediot Achronot, discussed a deal in which Netanyahu would push legislation that would weaken a competitor — a free daily that is generally seen as a mouthpiece for the prime minister himself — in return for more positive coverage of the prime minister in Yediot. Netanyahu also discussed helping the publisher, Noni Mozes, find a wealthy investor for the Yediot media group, which includes a website and book publisher.
The media scandal has been described by Channel 2 television news as the selling out of a newspaper in order to keep Netanyahu in power. Channel 2 has been providing snippets of transcripts of recorded conversations from 2014 between the prime minister and Mozes every evening in prime time.
The Bibi-Mozes newspaper scandal is all the more surprising given the public feud between the prime minister and the Yediot publisher. During the 2015 parliamentary election, Netanyahu even devoted an advertisement to ridiculing the articles published in the newspaper and its online affiliate, Ynet.
The highlights of nightly reports from Channel 2 include Mozes allegedly telling Netanyahu that he’ll be able to remain prime minister as long as he’d like; and the prime minister allegedly proposing legislation to limit the power of Yisrael Hayom, the controversial free newspaper sympathetic to Netanyahu owned by Jewish-American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.
As a parade of media barons, Netanyahu family members and politicians have arrived at police headquarters in recent days for questioning, updates on the corruption investigations are opening news broadcasts and leading newspapers for well over a week.
The major question is whether Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit will decide whether there’s enough evidence to support a criminal indictment against Netanyahu. Though Netanyahu would not be legally obligated to resign, such a development would likely trigger an avalanche of calls for him to step aside.
In 2008, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was forced to resign when it became clear that he faced an impending indictment.
“If he’s indicted, it would be an earthquake,” said Avraham Diskin, a professor of political science at Hebrew University. “Anything would be possible, including an early election.”
After weeks of remaining tight-lipped, Netanyahu finally weighed in on the investigation on Monday, alleging that he has been the target of a media campaign to pressure the police and Israeli prosecutors to indict him.
“In recent days, there’s been a huge media campaign whose purpose is to topple the Likud government that I lead,” he told lawmakers from his party.
“This is an orchestrated campaign that includes media figures who are acting not only as journalists: they are also the investigators, the judges and the hangmen. The purpose is to put pressure on justice officials and the attorney general so they’ll indict. But I want to tell you: In democracies, we change governments at the polling stations.”
Indeed, despite the wall-to-wall coverage of the scandals, so far the allegations faced by Netanyahu aren’t likely to hurt his standing with his core constituency on the right.
“It actually strengthens him with his supporters because they see a systematic campaign of the ‘leftist media’ and elitist bureaucrats in order to bring him down and destabilize him,” said Mitchell Barak, an American-Israeli public opinion expert. “His faithful stand by him even more.”
Indeed, so far, no one from the government coalition has come out and challenged Netanyahu over the investigations. Speaking to a group of foreign journalists, Likud minister Tzachi Hanegbi said that while the prime minister doesn’t dispute the accuracy of what has been reported, Netanyahu believes he didn’t act in a criminal manner, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Naftali Bennett, the leader of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition ally, the Jewish Home Party, has said that “a prime minister shouldn’t be toppled over cigars.”
The scandal has prompted rising calls from opposition politicians questioning Netanyahu’s ability to lead the nation amid the investigation.
“What has been revealed indicates that Netanyahu has lost the public legitimacy to be the prime minister — regardless of whether there is an indictment,” wrote Tzipi Livni, an opposition leader, on her Facebook page last week. “Not because of his [political] positions, but because of his conduct.”
The police investigation has taken control of Israel’s public agenda, pushing aside foreign diplomacy and the settlements, wrote Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid Party.
“There is a country to run. We can’t afford having a prime minister who is too busy spending time with lawyers and in interrogation rooms,” Lapid said. “Our public life can’t include secret recordings and newspapers for sale.”
Legal experts have said that the prime minister is on shaky ground. Though Netanyahu and his wife have insisted that the cigars and champagne were merely presents between friends, analysts say that a steady supply of gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars could definitely be considered a bribe in a court.
And even though the deal with Mozes was never acted on, the fact of a negotiation over a bribe might be incriminating.
“From the standpoint of the prime minister, all that needs to occur for him to be considered as having been involved in a bribe is that the receiver must be aware that a bribe has been offered, i.e., a gift in return for fulfilling his job,” said Haifa University Law Professor Emanuel Gross in an interview with Israel Radio. “There’s no doubt that positive media coverage is a most significant gift for a public figure.”
Convinced that negative press upended his first government in 1999, Netanyahu has sought to encourage the entrance of new players, ostensibly to diversify the media market. He is widely believed to have collaborated with Adelson on Yisrael Hayom, a newspaper criticized as being his personal political organ.
The prime minister, who also holds the portfolio of communications minister since 2014, has threatened one Israeli television station with closure and held up a reform of public broadcasting. In recent months, he’s also put out social media smear attacks against several leading journalists who investigated different scandals.
“All the press in Israel has become part of the political system without wanting it, because Netanyahu has made it ‘me against the press,’” said Yair Tarchitsky, a chairman of the Union of Journalists in Israel.
“One of the reasons why Netanyahu called early elections in 2015 was to stifle a rebellion: coalition members had joined with the opposition to support a law to force Yisrael Hayom to charge money — the very type of bill that Netanyahu discussed with Mozes in their secret talks.
“Listening makes you feel like they are talking about how they are controlling the Israeli state,” said Tarchitsky. “It’s an advanced version of ‘House of Cards.’ I don’t think the screenwriters of ‘House of Cards’ can beat the reality in Israel.”