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Netanyahu’s grip on power under threat as gift scandal grows

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on Sunday. (ABIR SULTAN / Associated Press)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on Sunday. (ABIR SULTAN / Associated Press)
By David Wainer Bloomberg

TEL AVIV, Israel – Benjamin Netanyahu has survived many challenges on his way to becoming the second longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history. A deepening criminal investigation now presents a new threat to his grip on power.

Police questioned Netanyahu twice in recent weeks over his receipt of gifts from businessmen and for reportedly plotting to help a newspaper owner in return for favorable coverage. He denies any wrongdoing. But with a steady drip of leaks from the probes dominating daily headlines, opposition parties are calling for him to go and the allegations are beginning to weaken him, even within his own ranks, said Eytan Gilboa, director of Bar-Ilan University’s center for international communications.

“It’s clear that some members of his party are seeing this and beginning their preparations to try to become the next leader,” Gilboa said. “The opposition obviously is trying to capitalize on this moment, pointing to his conflict of interest as minister of communications and accusing him of living the life of an oligarch.”

The probes up the pressure on Netanyahu after last month’s diplomatic debacle at the United Nations, where the Security Council declared Israeli settlements illegal and described land won in the 1967 Middle East war as occupied Palestinian territory. Then came a blistering critique from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who called Netanyahu’s government the most right-wing in Israeli history and said settlers were dictating its agenda.

But what has really electrified Netanyahu’s opponents is the investigation, which is exposing how the premier received valuable gifts from Israeli and foreign businessmen he says are simply generous friends.

Calls for Netanyahu’s resignation grew as Israel’s Channel 2 television reported that police have a tape of Netanyahu trying to end a feud with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper owner Arnon Mozes by discussing how to undermine Israel Hayom, a free publication backed by U.S. casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a Netanyahu patron.

Channel 2 reported Tuesday night that in exchange for passing a law forcing Israel Hayom to charge customers money — a step likely to limit its readership — Mozes promised to do all he could through Yedioth to keep Netanyahu in power. In the end, the press law was never passed and Yedioth continued its sharply critical coverage of Netanyahu and his family.

Police are planning a third round of questioning soon, Israeli media reported Tuesday.

“The prime minister cannot stay in office even one more moment,” said Zehava Galon, chairwoman of the opposition Meretz party. “Coordinating benefits with a media outlet for positive coverage is governmental blackmailing. Netanyahu acts like a wheeler-dealer and it proves that he has been prime minister for too long. He should resign.”

The prime minister’s office did not reply to a request for comment on the leaks from the police probes. Appearing on a Channel 2 newscast, Netanyahu’s attorney, Jacob Weinroth, did not dispute the reported gifts but said there’s nothing illegal in accepting presents from friends.

Netanyahu told ministers from his Likud Party on Sunday that he is innocent of any wrongdoing, and portrayed the investigations as a witch hunt by his political opponents.

“What you have here is improper and relentless pressure from some media platforms on law enforcement authorities,” he said. “I suggest to my colleagues in the opposition not to celebrate because there is nothing to celebrate. Governments are replaced at the ballot box.”

It’s not unprecedented for Israeli leaders to be investigated: Former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon were both questioned but ultimately weren’t charged with crimes, while Netanyahu’s immediate predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was sent to jail for bribery and obstruction of justice. Netanyahu himself was investigated in the past for allegations of financial impropriety. He has denied any illegal conduct and was never indicted.

Helping Netanyahu is the fact that his coalition has largely stayed behind him, and there are no obvious replacements on the right. Coalition Chairman David Bitan told Army Radio the premier shouldn’t resign even if indicted, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman — considered a prime ministerial aspirant from the Yisrael Beitenu party — said he doesn’t believe an indictment is forthcoming, according to the Haaretz newspaper.

Recent polls show the centrist Yesh Atid party would beat Likud if elections were held today. That said, polls in the last election underestimated Netanyahu’s popular support.

While Netanyahu could yet face a political move to oust him, his most imminent risk right now is the legal one, said Yedidia Stern, vice president for research at the Israel Democracy Institute.

“There’s no question that he will translate the investigation into a ‘right vs. left’ battle, and much of the right-wing camp will rally behind him,” Stern said. “The question then becomes how good of a defense he’s able to make against the police accusations. If he can win the legal battle, he’s well-positioned to win the political one.”

Even if Netanyahu does survive the legal challenge, eventually he will have to answer to a public exposed to incessant coverage of his alleged improprieties.

“It’s yet unclear how this plays out with voters,” Bar-Ilan’s Gilboa said. “But stories of him smoking expensive cigars clearly do damage.”

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