Bribery probe could cost Netanyahu’s April 9 election

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu giving a statement to reporters in his offices. (Bloomberg pic)

TEL AVIV: Looming bribery charges against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could be enough to swing April’s election to the centre-left opposition, according to polls after the attorney general said he’s considering prosecution.

A new poll released Sunday on Channel 12 showed the Blue & White bloc led by ex-military chief of staff Benny Gantz and former Finance Minister Yair Lapid positioned to form a centre-left government after April’s vote with 61 seats in parliament, compared with 59 likely to back a right-wing government led by Netanyahu’s Likud party.

14% of right-wing respondents said the draft indictment made them rethink how they’ll vote. Seventeen to 20% of people who voted for Likud in the last election in 2015 said this time they’ll vote for Blue & White.

Before Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit’s announcement Thursday evening, polls had projected Netanyahu would form the next government atop a 61-seat bloc. In both the “before” and “after” scenarios, the edge fell within the polls’ margin of error.

Mandelblit said he’s considering charging the prime minister with bribery, fraud and breach of trust for allegedly advancing the interests of the country’s biggest telecommunications company – controlled by a Netanyahu friend – in exchange for positive news coverage.

He’s also weighing fraud and breach of trust charges in two other cases of alleged favour-trading. He won’t make a final decision until Netanyahu has a chance to present his side in a hearing, a process that can take months – and surely won’t be finished before the April 9 vote.

Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing, describing the charges as a witch hunt by left-wing opponents who can’t defeat him at the ballot box. Responding Thursday night, he accused investigators of giving in to political pressure and rushing the announcement to influence voters.

Losing support

It’s the first time a sitting Israeli leader has ever come so near to criminal charges. Netanyahu has said he won’t step down unless convicted, and legally he can stay in office until the appeals process is exhausted.

But if the nation’s top prosecutor believes the case is strong enough to file charges, it could erode the prime minister’s support to the point where he loses the election or concludes he has to resign.

According to the Panels Politics poll broadcast Sunday on Channel 12, 50% of respondents think Netanyahu should step down if he’s indicted after his hearing.

The corruption investigation began in 2016 and expanded from gifts of cigars and champagne to regulatory decisions that reshaped the country’s communications landscape. Testimony from three former close aides was crucial in building the case against Netanyahu.