Blow to Netanyahu as close associate turns state’s witness

Israeli PM’s political survival looks less likely as two more dramatic developments take place

Benjamin Netanyahu during an event organised by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations in Jerusalem, on Wednesday. Photograph: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Benjamin Netanyahu during an event organised by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations in Jerusalem, on Wednesday. Photograph: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

 

Binyamin Netanyahu’s chances of emerging unscathed from a series of corruption scandals suffered a serious blow on Wednesday when one of the Israeli prime minister’s closest associates, Shlomo Filber, began testifying in a new graft probe after signing a state’s witness agreement.

Last week it appeared that Mr Netanyahu would survive politically – at least for now – after the police recommended that he be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two separate graft cases. But the premier, now in his fourth term, came out fighting, claiming that he and his family were the victims of a relentless witch-hunt by the left and the media.

Members of his ruling Likud party and his coalition partners stood by him, declaring that Mr Netanyahu is entitled to the presumption of innocence and that the final decision to indict rested with the attorney general.

But this week, two more dramatic developments took place. On Tuesday, police alleged that Mr Netanyahu’s former spokesman tried to bribe a judge to drop a fraud case against Mr Netanyahu’s wife, Sara. Mr Netanyahu described the claim as “hallucinatory”.

Another new corruption case also emerged, potentially more damaging than the cases already under consideration by the attorney general.

Financial benefits

In the affair, dubbed “Case 4,000”, police believe that Mr Netanyahu, when he also served as communications minister between 2015-17, ensured financial benefits amounting to hundreds of millions of euro for Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company, which is owned by Shaul Elovitch. In return, Mr Elovitch guaranteed favourable coverage for Mr Netanyahu and his wife on the popular news website Walla!, which he also owned at the time.

At the centre of the alleged deal was Mr Filber, handpicked by Mr Netanyahu to be director general of the communications ministry, after Mr Netanyahu himself took on the communications portfolio.

Sources close to the investigation said Mr Filber’s deal to turn state’s witness was “a dramatic development” in the case, as his testimony may incriminate Mr Netanyahu.

In response, Mr Netanyahu posted an opinion poll on Facebook on Wednesday that showed his party would boost its representation in the 120-member Knesset parliament from 30 seats to 34 if elections were held now – way ahead of the 2nd place centrist opposition Yesh Atid party, which had only 20 seats in the poll.

“But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew,” Mr Netanyahu wrote in the post, quoting Exodus 1:12.

Snap election

The poll led to speculation that Mr Netanyahu may opt for a snap election in the hope that he would be re-elected for an unprecedented fifth term, with popular backing, despite the wave of corruption allegations that most commentators believe make his position increasingly untenable.

Avi Gabbay, leader of the centre-left Zionist Union opposition party, called on his party to prepare for elections in the near future. Mr Gabbay tweeted that the latest events had made it clear that the Netanyahu era was over.

“The criminal house of cards that the prime minister has built over the past years – corrupting the public service, undermining the rule of law, threatening the freedom of the press, and above all dividing and pitting groups in Israeli society against each other – is collapsing upon him and his associates,” Mr Gabbay said.

Nahum Barnea, the veteran commentator for the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, compared Mr Netanyahu’s plight to a Shakespearean tragedy that can only end badly.

“The more time that passed, the less cautious he became and the greater his sense of entitlement grew. His desire to eradicate rivals by any means, his disdain for the gatekeepers, his cynicism and his self-pity superseded his good judgment and he went too far.”

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