Is Bibi Netanyahu on the way out?

Israel’s Prime Minister has just developed a new political, if not legal problem. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that an existing problem has moved into a new, serious phase.

There have been rumors and accusations swirling around Netanyahu for quite a while now, alleging that he’s been involved in official corruption in the form of accepting gifts and donations in exchange for political favors. The Prime Minister has continually scoffed at these stories, calling them politically motivated attacks and basically saying that there’s no “there” there. Unfortunately for him, the police have now recommended that bribery charges be filed against him in two separate cases. (Politico)

For more than a year, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s scandal-plagued prime minister, has repeated a simple slogan: “There will be nothing, because there is nothing.” On Tuesday night, the Israeli police announced that there might be something, after all.

After a long probe, investigators recommended charging Netanyahu with bribery in two separate cases. In one, dubbed “Case 1000,” he allegedly received lavish gifts—cigars, champagne, tailored suits—from wealthy businessmen, in exchange for political favors. The police estimated the value of the gifts at one million shekels, or $282,000. The other (“Case 2000”) involves the publisher of Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest paid daily newspaper. Netanyahu is accused of colluding with the media mogul, trading favorable coverage for a law that would have helped Yediot’s bottom line. (The law was never passed.)

Now the question is: Can Netanyahu, Israel’s second longest-serving prime minister, survive?

So this looks pretty bad for Bibi, but as Politico goes on to point out, there are a number of factors working in his favor which might allow him to survive. Legally, he’s not required to step down from office just because charges are filed. He would only have to do that if he were taken to trial and convicted. Also, his political opponents aren’t doing very well in the polls and may not have the clout to undermine Netanyahu’s ruling coalition and force him out. The fact that one of the state’s witnesses in the investigation is Yair Lapid, one of Bibi’s opposition party challengers, gives some weight to the Prime Minister’s claim that this is all a political witch hunt.

Still, the charges look pretty damning if they’re substantiated and the law enforcement officials working the case seem to believe they are. Taking more than a quarter million dollars in gifts from a rich business owner has to raise questions. And any time you’re getting unusually favorable coverage from a media outlet who stands to benefit from a law you’re trying to push through, well… that’s going to raise some eyebrows as well.

The other question is whether or not there will actually have to be a trial to begin with. The cases are being handed off to the Attorney General, who conveniently happens to be someone appointed by Netanyahu. If he opts not to pursue the charges, there’s really nothing that can force the Prime Minister out of office unless his own Likud Party decides to take him out. And Netanyahu remains popular at home, seen as a stalwart defender of Israel against Iran (a relationship which is flaring up again this month), as well as an international statesman who brings Israel respect from other leaders around the globe.

Are the voters in Israel going to be sufficiently upset by this news to rise up against their leader? I’m not familiar enough with the internal politics of that nation to hazard a guess, but some of the people who study it closely seem to feel that most Israelis don’t care all that much as long as the country is kept safe and strong. Perhaps they’re just so used to such rumors and dealmaking that they’ll shrug it off. Charges such as these could easily bring down a politician in other countries, but Netanyahu may just be able to ride it out.