JERUSALEM – Israel's attorney general recommended indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust on Thursday in a series of corruption scandals that have dogged his recent years in office and overshadowed his current re-election campaign.
The scandals have engulfed Netanyahu's family and his inner circle, with at least three former close confidants turning state's evidence and testifying as a witness against him. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit says he has sufficient evidence to press charges against Netanyahu in three separate cases, pending a pre-indictment hearing where Netanyahu will be given the opportunity to defend himself. His political opponents, and indeed the entire country, have been eagerly awaiting the decision of Mandelblit — a Netanyahu appointee — with the April 9 election day fast approaching.
Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, have long been saddled with a penchant for expensive tastes and questionable use of public funds. Mrs. Netanyahu has been indicted for graft, fraud and breach of trust for allegedly overspending more than $100,000 in public funds on private meals at their official residence.
However, polls have consistently shown Netanyahu to still be the public's preferred candidate to be prime minister and he remains deadlocked in the polls, 40 days before Israelis go to vote.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing, dismissing the allegations as a media-orchestrated witch hunt aimed at removing him from office. With the indictment, however, and the prospect of a sitting prime minister standing trial, the election has become a referendum on Netanyahu as he seeks to become the longest serving premier in Israeli history.
Here's a look at the current cases facing the longtime Israeli leader:
The most damaging case involves an influence-peddling scandal in which two of Netanyahu's closest aides are testifying against him on suspicion of promoting regulation worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel's Bezeq telecom company. In return, Bezeq's popular news site, Walla, allegedly provided favorable coverage of Netanyahu and his family. Nir Hefetz, a former Netanyahu family spokesman, and Shlomo Filber, the former director of the Communications Ministry under Netanyahu, cut deals with prosecutors after they were arrested along with Bezeq's controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch, his wife, son and other top Bezeq executives. Former journalists at the Walla news site have attested to being pressured to refrain from negative reporting of Netanyahu. Mandelblit said he recommends charging Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Police recommended indicting Netanyahu over accepting nearly $300,000 in gifts from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer. Police say that in return for lavish gifts that included jewelry, expensive cigars and champagne, Netanyahu had operated on Milchan's behalf on U.S. visa matters, tried to legislate a generous tax break for him and sought to promote his interests in the Israeli media market. Police have not commented on what Packer, who reportedly sought Israeli residency status for tax purposes, may have received, and Netanyahu has said everything he received were gifts from friends. Longtime aide Ari Harow is a state witness in this case. Mandelblit recommends charging Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust.
Police have also recommended indicting Netanyahu for supposedly offering a newspaper publisher legislation that would weaken his paper's main rival in return for more favorable coverage. Netanyahu reportedly was recorded asking Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the Yediot Ahronot daily, for positive coverage in exchange for helping to weaken Israel Hayom, a free pro-Netanyahu newspaper that had cut into Yediot's business. Israel Hayom is financed by Netanyahu's American billionaire friend Sheldon Adelson and largely serves as the prime minister's mouthpiece. Netanyahu has noted that a proposed law to weaken Israel Hayom never passed and that he had even dissolved his coalition and called a new election in 2015 because of his opposition to the proposal. Harow is a state witness in this case, too. Mandelblit recommends charging Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust.
Netanyahu was questioned, but not named as a suspect, in a probe related to a possible conflict of interest involving a $2 billion purchase of German submarines that implicated some of his closest associates. Netanyahu's personal attorney, who is also his cousin, represented the German firm involved and is suspected of using his influence over the prime minister in return for a hefty cut of the deal. Israel's Supreme Court rejected a final appeal Thursday to question the prime minister under warning, saying there was no basis for suspecting Netanyahu in the scandal.
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