Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been indicted on serious charges of corruption ranging from bribery to fraud and breach of trust.
To complicate the country’s politics, if a government is not formed in the next couple of weeks, it will trigger a third election. The White House has softened its stance on the settlements considered illegal by the international community, and rockets from Syria spark a large scale strike against Iranian targets in Syria.
The State of Israel v. Benjamin, son of Benzion Netanyahu
Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has indicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of corruption that range from bribery to fraud and breach of trust.
It is the first time in Israel’s history that a sitting prime minister has been indicted, and it couldn’t come at a more politically fraught time as multiple failures to form a government threaten to plunge Israel into the third election of the year. The Jerusalem Post reported that despite the timing, Mandelblit said that the indictment should not be used as a political weapon by the left or right, but should serve as a reminder that nobody is above the law.
“Out of a deep commitment to the law and the public interest, law enforcement is not something we can choose,” Mandelblit said. “It is not a matter of left or right or of politics. This is our duty.”
The indictment for public corruption rides on three cases that have cast a pall over Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister for the last several years.
Charges: bribery, fraud, breach of trust
Allegation: Netanyahu is accused in a media bribery scheme in which the owner of media company Walla, Shaul Elovitch, gave Netanyahu positive news coverage, and in exchange Netanyahu made government policies favoring Elovitch’s Bezeq company.
Charges: fraud, breach of trust
Allegation: Netanyahu allegedly worked with national newspapers Yediot and Israel Hayom to reduce Israel Hayom’s competition with Yediot in exchange for positive coverage for Netanyahu in Yediot. This deal never went through, but crimes of attempted bribery and breach of trust can apply even if a deal does not go through, according to Israeli law.
Charges: fraud, breach of trust
Allegation: Netanyahu is accused of receiving gifts worth hundreds of thousands of shekels from wealthy tycoons in exchange for favors to help with business and personal legal battles. The charge itself is for acting in situations that could have created a conflict of interest for Netanyahu since no actual quid pro quo could be proven.
In the wake of these allegations being officially filed as indictments, Netanyahu has flatly denied the charges and has said he will defend himself and stay in office. However, for the first time in his tenure as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, he is now facing legitimate challenges from his own party members who are now questioning what leadership is in the party’s best interest.
As the court process moves forward, the attorney general has assembled a team to answer questions never before faced in Israel, such as whether a prime minister facing an indictment should resign or resign only after being convicted, which is the norm in basic law. Another question looming over the proceedings is whether Netanyahu can receive the mandate to attempt to form a government, again, after the indictment has been filed.
No matter the outcome, Mandelblit reiterated that the delivery of justice should be above political influence.
“It is not a political issue,” Mandelblit said. “It is an obligation imposed on all of us—those who are part of law enforcement, and on me personally as the one who stands as its head. There is no man who is above the law.”
Possible Third Election Looms over Israel
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin conceded that the country might be headed toward a third election in one year given the absolute political gridlock and failure of party leaders to form a government.
"We must find a way for the two major parties to join forces," The Jerusalem Post reported he said, "but it seems that their leaders want another election. This is already too much democracy. Two elections in a year is enough."
The two main parties, Likud and Blue and White, have butted heads since the first election of the year in April when the newly formed Blue and White won enough seats in the Knesset to force Likud to negotiate to form a majority government. Negotiations have failed repeatedly, and after a second election and the mandate to form a government passed between party leaders, including Netanyahu, the only remaining option is to hold yet another election.
That is, unless an agreement is reached in the next couple of weeks, marking a never-before-explored political stage for the country. For the first time in Israel’s history, the Knesset has entered a twenty-one-day period where any of the 120 members who can muster a majority of sixty-one signatures can form a government and be prime minister.
If this last chance also fails, new elections are automatically triggered and are most likely to be held in March.
U.S. No Longer Calls Settlements Illegal
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced last Monday that the U.S. would soften its stance regarding the existence of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and no longer consider them a violation of international law.
This forty-year policy reversal is the latest move in the Trump administration’s shift to support Israeli claims over contentious land disputes. Earlier this year, the White House recognized Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights, Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and announced it was officially moving the U.S. embassy there. Lauded by the Israeli government, these bold moves have enflamed political tensions and likely complicated any negotiations toward peace with Palestinians—another promise the Trump administration has made.
Pompeo said that calling the settlements illegal hasn’t helped the peace process. “Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law has not advanced the cause of peace,” Pompeo said. “The hard truth is that there will never be a judicial resolution to the conflict, and arguments about who is right and who is wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace.”
The broader international community met the new U.S. stance on settlements stiffly. The United Nations Spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights told reporters that “a change in the policy position of one Member State does not modify existing international law nor its interpretation by the International Court of Justice and the UN Security Council.”
The Jordanian government and Palestinian leaders also criticized the announcement along with 106 Democratic House Members who, in a letter to Pompeo, said the move discredits the U.S. as an honest broker, hurts peace hopes, and endangers the security of America, Israel, and the Palestinians.
Israeli settlement into the West Bank and East Jerusalem began after the 1967 war. Today, more than 700,000 settlers live in the contested land claimed by Palestinians for a future state.
Israel maintains the position that the territories aren’t occupied but that they were captured from Jordan in a defensive war, and that the West Bank was just controlled by Jordan but not actually the kingdom’s sovereign territory.
Rockets from Syria Met by Wide-Scale Strikes
Israel carried out a “wide-scale” operation against Iranian targets in Syria a day after rocket fire on the Golan Heights.
The Associated Press reports that the Israeli military said it intercepted four rockets from Syria with the Iron Dome on Tuesday and said the attack “threatens Israeli security, regional stability, and the Syrian regime. The Israeli strikes allegedly killed twenty-three people while destroying military targets. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said five Syrian troops, sixteen Iranian and Iran-backed fighters, and two Syrian civilians were among the dead. Syrian state media only reported the two civilian deaths.
Iranian proxy forces in Syria have attempted to strike Israeli targets six times since February 2018, according to the IDF. All attempts have been thwarted and met with Israel’s aggressive reactionary operations against Iranian targets in Syria. Israel’s new defense minister affirmed Israel’s goal to secure the northern border and promised a harsh response to anyone who poses a threat.
“The rules have changed: whoever fires on Israel during the day will not sleep at night,” he said. “Our message to the leaders of Iran is simple: You are no longer immune. Any place you dispatch your tentacles, we will chop them off.”
Iranian targets in Syria have been far from immune in the last several years. As Syria’s civil war created openings for Iranian forces like Hezbollah to gain ground near Israel, the IDF routinely carried out airstrikes in Syrian airspace against Iranian military infrastructure. At first, Israel denied or would not comment on these activities, but they now admit to the operations and say they are necessary to keep Iran away from the border region.