December 2, 2018 / 12:18 PM / 8 days ago

Explainer: Netanyahu investigation - What happens next?

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Benjamin Netanyahu is the dominant Israeli politician of his generation. On the domestic and international stage, no rival comes close to the Likud Party leader known widely as “Bibi”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office December 2, 2018. Gali Tibbon/Pool via REUTERS

Israeli police on Dec. 2 recommended that the 69-year-old prime minister be indicted for bribery and fraud. It is the third such police recommendation against the four-term veteran, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

Here’s a guide to Netanyahu’s political and legal prospects.

WHAT ARE THE ALLEGATIONS?

CASE 4000 - The police say they found enough evidence for bribery and fraud charges to be brought against Netanyahu and his wife Sara.

They alleged that Netanyahu granted regulatory favors to Israel’s leading telecommunications company, Bezeq Telecom Israel (BEZQ.TA), in return for more positive coverage of him and his wife Sara on a company news website known as Walla.

CASE 1000 - In February police said they had found sufficient evidence for Netanyahu to be charged with “committing of crimes of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.”

They alleged that Arnon Milchan, a Hollywood producer and Israeli citizen, and Australian businessman James Packer gave gifts including champagne, cigars and jewelry to Netanyahu and his family from 2007 to 2016.

Any legal proceedings would likely focus on whether political favors were sought or granted. Both Packer and Milchan deny wrongdoing.

CASE 2000 - Netanyahu is suspected of negotiating a deal with the owner of Israel’s best-selling daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, for better coverage. Police alleged “bribery, fraud and breach of trust by the prime minister” and by Yediot’s publisher, Arnon Mozes.

Police said the two men discussed ways of slowing the growth of a rival daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, “through legislation and other means”. Mozes denies wrongdoing.

WILL NETANYAHU BE PROSECUTED?

Maybe, but it is by no means certain. He has denied all the allegations, and the police can only make recommendations.

It is now up to Israel’s attorney-general, Avichai Mandelblit, to decide whether to press charges against Netanyahu in the three cases. That decision could take months.

DOES NETANYAHU HAVE TO RESIGN?

No. Netanyahu is under no strict legal obligation to quit. He has given every indication that he intends to remain in office while pursuing a legal battle.

There has been little public pressure from coalition partners for him to step down, although that could change as politicians and the Israeli public study detail of the cases. If he is charged, then political pressure could mount on him to step down.

WHAT ARE NETANYAHU’S POLITICAL PROSPECTS?

The next election is scheduled for November 2019, but a snap election could be called.

Analysts have said Netanyahu may want to influence any possible legal proceedings against him by holding an early election to win a renewed public mandate. So far, his right-wing Likud leads the polls.

The likelihood of an early election increased in November after Netanyahu’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, quit the government, leaving the ruling coalition with a shaky one-seat majority in parliament.

Politicians close to Netanyahu have said any early election would likely be held in May.

But even if Netanyahu wins an election, the fact that he is being scrutinized by prosecutors will likely affect the calculations of supporters, rivals and opponents across the political spectrum. That may affect whether he could form a new coalition, if he wins.

WHO ARE NETANYAHU’S CHALLENGERS?

No one in Netanyahu’s own right-wing party, Likud, is making a public challenge. The party is expected to close ranks around him in the coming election.

However, some in the party harbor ambitions to succeed Netanyahu when he eventually leaves the political stage.

These are thought to include Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Intelligence Minister Israel Katz and former Education Minister Gideon Saar.

None has shown strong signs of planning to depart significantly from Netanyahu’s hawkish policies.

Outside Likud, Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid opposition party, is seen as the strongest candidate to succeed Netanyahu in any upset. Lapid’s party is second to Likud in opinion polls.

Israel’s former army chief, Benny Gantz, is seen as a potential dovish candidate who could tip the balance in favor of a center-left bloc, though he has not yet thrown his hat in the ring.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak has been searing in his criticism of Netanyahu in recent months, and is also seen as a potential contender.

On the right, Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, could both seek to lead a right-wing bloc if Likud emerges in a weaker position in an election.

WHY HAS NETANYAHU BEEN SO SUCCESSFUL FOR SO LONG?

Netanyahu first led Israel from 1996 to 1999, and returned in 2009.

Many Israeli voters like his security-first approach to politics. They recognize that his fluency in English and decades of experience give him an international stature that no other Israeli politician can rival. And the Israeli economy is strong.

Netanyahu enjoys a particularly close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, who backed the Israeli leader’s consistent opposition to an Iran nuclear deal negotiated under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

Trump’s decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the U.S. Embassy to the city were greeted with delight by many Israelis, who saw Netanyahu’s influence in both decisions. Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, were outraged.

Even the three corruption investigations have, so far, failed to make a visible dent in Netanyahu’s political standing.

Netanyahu’s loyal right-wing base broadly seems to accept his claims that he is the victim of a politically orchestrated “witch-hunt” by the media and his political opponents.

Writing by Maayan Lubell and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Toby Chopra

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