Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu Faces Indictments For Corruption
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In Israel, longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been struggling to hold onto his job for months. Now, in a historic development, he faces indictments for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Israel's attorney general announced the charges today. Netanyahu says they are cooked up by political opponents. They allege a range of illegal acts, from giving a regulatory break to a telecom company in exchange for good press coverage to accepting free cigars and champagne.
NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us from Tel Aviv. Hi, Daniel.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What specifically did the attorney general say Netanyahu has done to break the law here?
ESTRIN: Well, there are a range of charges. The most serious one is bribery. The charge is that Netanyahu gave very lucrative regulatory favors to a telecommunications company and, in exchange, the company's news website gave Netanyahu positive coverage, which, according to the attorney general, Netanyahu saw as crucial to his political future.
And Netanyahu was also accused of speaking with a newspaper publisher - a different one - about a deal to get favorable coverage in exchange for helping that publisher undercut his competitor - and also that Netanyahu and his family got cigars and champagne from a Hollywood mogul and Netanyahu ex - repaid them in favors.
SHAPIRO: As we said, Netanyahu denies these charges. What more did he say when he addressed the country about it?
ESTRIN: Well, he was on TV. And he, at first, looked quite shaken up. But he gained confidence, and here's what he sounded like.
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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).
ESTRIN: He said, "I'm not going to let the lie win." He said the investigation into him was tainted. He used that word repeatedly. He said this is an attempt to topple him from power. He didn't address most of the charges directly. But specifically about the charge about him seeking positive press, he said, "I'm the prime minister with the worst Israeli press coverage in history." And he vowed to continue leading the country.
SHAPIRO: That does sound like a familiar line - worse press coverage in history - from a world leader. Can he actually stay in power while he fights these charges?
ESTRIN: Well, there's no law that automatically forces Netanyahu out of office. Right now he has a 30-day period. He can try to seek immunity from prosecution, but there will be legal challenges over that and over whether he can even stay prime minister. This corruption case now could take years to prosecute. What you have to recognize now is that they're - we're in a remarkable political situation here in Israel. It's...
SHAPIRO: Right. I was just going to say...
SHAPIRO: ...There have been two massive elections, neither one of them conclusive. Israel was already facing a third. So what does this mean?
ESTRIN: Right. Well, you know, every time that Israel's had elections this year, Netanyahu couldn't form a government, and his opponent couldn't either. And so now we could be looking at a third election in March. And you see that as these allegations have mounted over the last few years, every time Israel had an election, Netanyahu, in the past, won elections very easily - now not so much.
So his political allies who have stood by him this whole time, the question is whether they're going to stand by him now - now that he's facing a very serious bribery charge. So we're going to look to see if his political partners stick with him. And we may already be seeing the first cracks because one member of his party says he wants to challenge Netanyahu in a party primary.
SHAPIRO: Has there been any response today from Benny Gantz, his opponent who basically tied with him in the last election?
ESTRIN: Yes. Benny Gantz is calling on him to resign and saying that he cannot maintain office and that it's - it would be immoral for him to do so. And what's interesting is that Gantz, too, was not able to form a government. And so now we're in an unprecedented moment the country hasn't seen before and unclear who is going to take charge of the country.
SHAPIRO: Lots to talk about but probably not much getting done in the halls of government right now, I would imagine.
NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv, Israel. Thanks a lot.
ESTRIN: You're welcome.
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