Israeli police have officially announced that they think there is enough evidence to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for corruption in two separate cases. This long-teased and widely expected announcement does not, however, mean that charges will actually be filed against Netanyahu.
If you’re experiencing a bit of déjà vu, that’s because there have been “BREAKING” news stories for months now indicating that the Teflon prime minister is on the verge of being prosecuted. But only the country’s attorney general can actually file charges against Bibi, and it will likely take him several months to decide whether or not to do so. Even then, Netanyahu would not be legally required to step down.
So what’s this all about?
There are at least four major ongoing corruption scandals involving Netanyahu, his family, and his associates. The two discussed in the police recommendation today are known as “Case 1000” and “Case 2000.” Case 1000 concerns allegations that Netanyahu, his wife Sara, and his son Yair received tens of thousands of dollars in gifts from Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer. Netanyahu says the gifts—regular shipments of pink champagne and Cohiba cigars, as well as free flights and jewelry—were just tokens of friendship, but the allegation is that the PM helped secure Milchan a U.S. visa and Packer Israeli residency in return for their generosity.
A former Netanyahu aide recently testified that Netanyahu had brought up the cigars at a meeting with Milchan where they were discussing efforts to convince the Obama administration to renew residency for the producer of movies including The Revenant and 12 Years a Slave. Police also say that Netanyahu pushed for a law cutting taxes for Israelis who, like Milchan, return to Israel after spending time abroad.
Case 2000 involves recordings of conversations between Netanyahu and the publisher of the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, which has long been critical of the PM. He is accused of offering to advance legislation that would hurt the paper’s free rival, the traditionally pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom, in exchange for more favorable coverage in Yedioth Ahronoth. (Israel Hayom, backed by U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, scored an interview with Donald Trump this week.) Netanyahu says he was not serious about the offer.
As for Case 3000 and 4000, they are also very bad, but Netanyahu himself is not a suspect in either.
The decision on whether to actually indict Netanyahu now falls to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who has appeared very reluctant to move against the prime minister. Mandelblit even asked the police to delay its finding on Sunday until the country’s supreme court ruled on a legal challenge filed by a right-wing lawyer, which sought to block the recommendation. But the court rejected the petition in a matter of hours. Israeli political analyst Ben Caspit suggests that Mandelblit is worried about the potential damage to Israel’s legal institutions—not to mention his own reputation and career ambitions—if Netanyahu were charged but not convicted. (Demonstrators have been holding weekly rallies outside Mandelblit’s house for more than a year, calling for an indictment. There was a bit of an uproar last month when loud demonstrations outside his synagogue prevented him from saying kaddish for his recently deceased mother.)
Crazy as this all is, it’s not exactly uncharted water for Israeli politics. Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert resigned in 2008, after police recommended corruption charges against him, and went on to serve 16 months in prison. Moshe Katsav resigned from the country’s ceremonial presidency in 2007 when he was charged with rape.
But neither of those men dominated the country’s political landscape like Netanyahu has for nearly a decade now. For his part, the prime minister has shown no sign of backing down, dismissing the charges against him as “slander” and vowing to stay in office even though a poll in December found that 60 percent of Israelis thought he should step down if police recommend charges. Netanyahu has been accusing police investigators and media of engaging in a partisan witch hunt for months now, eliciting comparisons to his friend Donald Trump’s handling of his own legal troubles. (Playing the role of Don Jr., Yair Netanyahu, who could be in legal hot water himself, has gone as far as posting anti-Semitic memes blaming the investigation on a George Soros–organized conspiracy.)
There’s never really a quiet time in Israeli politics, but the latest twist in the Bibi affair comes at a particularly tense moment for the country. The downing of an Israeli war plane that was bombing Iran-backed positions in Syria suggests that the country is inching ever close to direct military confrontation with Iran. Trump’s ultimatums to Palestinian leaders, which were welcomed by Netanyahu, have thrown what was left of the peace process into disarray.
And Gaza is on the verge of humanitarian collapse.
It seems deeply bizarre that in the midst of this, a scandal over cigars and pink champagne may be what’s occupying most of the prime minister’s, and the country’s, time.