For more than a year, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s scandal-plagued prime minister, has repeated a simple slogan: “There will be nothing, because there is nothing.” On Tuesday night, the Israeli police announced that there might be something, after all.
After a long probe, investigators recommended charging Netanyahu with bribery in two separate cases. In one, dubbed “Case 1000,” he allegedly received lavish gifts—cigars, champagne, tailored suits—from wealthy businessmen, in exchange for political favors. The police estimated the value of the gifts at one million shekels, or $282,000. The other (“Case 2000”) involves the publisher of Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest paid daily newspaper. Netanyahu is accused of colluding with the media mogul, trading favorable coverage for a law that would have helped Yediot’s bottom line. (The law was never passed.)
Now the question is: Can Netanyahu, Israel’s second longest-serving prime minister, survive?
So far, he has denied any . And in a televised speech on Tuesday, delivered minutes after the news broke, he vowed to stay in office. “I will continue to lead Israel responsibly and faithfully,” he said. “These recommendations mean nothing in a democratic society.”
In a sense, he is right. Under Israeli law, a minister charged with serious offenses must resign, but a prime minister does not have to. Both cases will now go to the attorney general—a Netanyahu appointee—who will decide whether to press charges, a process that could drag into next year. Netanyahu will only be forced out of office if the attorney general decides to press charges and then, after a trial, he is convicted.
So for now, the question of survival remains political rather than legal: Can he maintain his coalition? A decade ago, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was accused of taking bribes, could not. It was in fact Netanyahu, who was opposition leader at the time, who spent months campaigning mercilessly against his rival. “A prime minister who is sunk up to his neck in investigations has no moral and public mandate,” he said. Olmert eventually lost the support of his own party, Kadima, which decided to dump him, and he stepped down soon after.
The Israeli media have relished replaying Netanyahu’s 2008 words. He sounds hypocritical in hindsight. But Netanyahu might well survive where Ohmert could not. For one, his own foes are too feckless to point out his hypocrisy effectively. The Labor Party, the onetime stalwart of Israel’s center-left, is adrift. Isaac Herzog, the nominal opposition leader, no longer controls the party; he was voted out in a primary last year. His replacement, Avi Gabbay, has been sinking in the polls. Yair Lapid, another centrist challenger, is actually serving as a key state’s witness—a fact that Netanyahu can harp on to dismiss the whole investigation as a politically motivated witch hunt.
He is already doing so. President Donald Trump may have raised eyebrows with his frequent attacks on the FBI—but viewed from Jerusalem, his rhetoric is tame. Netanyahu has berated the police for months, accusing them of bias and arguing that a top investigator should have recused himself. The prime minister’s closest allies use even more florid language. After the police announced their findings, Yariv Levin, the tourism minister, called their statement a “coup against the people’s will.” In a television interview last week, Roni Alsheikh, the police chief, even hinted that Netanyahu had sent private investigators to collect information on the cops working the case. (He offered no evidence no support his claim.)
Netanyahu’s campaign against law enforcement actually resonated with many of his right-wing supporters, and the broader Israeli public is apathetic. They have little trust in a political class that Transparency International ranks as among the most corrupt in the developed world. Aryeh Deri was convicted of taking bribes while serving as interior minister in the 1990s; he was reappointed to the same job in 2016, and quickly fell under investigation again. One poll found that 50 percent of Israeli Jews don’t trust the authorities to properly investigate the prime minister. Regular anti-Netanyahu protests this winter only drew thousands of participants, hardly a groundswell of opposition that might force his coalition to bolt.
Could a challenge come from the right? After nine years in power, Netanyahu has no shortage of right-wing rivals. He has ruthlessly pushed up-and-coming pols out of his own Likud party, and blocks the heads of smaller factions, like the hawkish Naftali Bennett, from making their own bids for the premiership. (One coalition lawmaker described Netanyahu to me as a machsom, the Hebrew word for a barrier or checkpoint.) But none of them want to gamble on instigating elections that could unseat the right-wing government. The only wild card, perhaps, is Moshe Kahlon, a former Likudnik who left the party and set up his own faction ahead of the 2015 election. He is privately troubled by both the corruption charges and Netanyahu’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies. But he has yet to make a public break with the premier.
Even if these cases do not hurt Netanyahu politically, others could. One is a Byzantine tale of corruption in the communications ministry, which Netanyahu headed for several years. The other involves millions of dollars in alleged bribes paid to purchase new nuclear-capable submarines, which the Israeli navy said it didn’t need. The latter could be particularly damaging, implying as it does that politicians put profit ahead of Israel’s security. So far, though, the trail only leads to Netanyahu’s aides, not to the prime minister himself.
Ironically, if there was one person who gave Netanyahu a real boost this week, it was Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran. The police recommendation comes just days after a major flare-up on Israel’s northern border. Early on Saturday morning, an Iranian drone crossed into Israeli airspace and was shot down. When Israeli jets crossed the border to retaliate, one of them was shot down. It was the air force’s first combat loss since the 1980s, a symbolic blow to Israel’s military superiority—and a sign of further confrontations to come.
These days, Netanyahu devotes most of his time to foreign affairs and security. He jets around the globe to warm welcomes from world leaders, from Trump to Narendra Modi. He has navigated Israel through seven years of regional chaos and kept the West Bank quiet. Though there were two wars in Gaza, he resisted demands from his hawkish coalition partners to re-occupy the territory.
While he waits for the attorney general’s decision, Netanyahu will put a simple question to his supporters: As international tensions flare, would you risk removing an experienced prime minister over some cigars and chats with a newspaper publisher? Indeed, on Thursday, barely 36 hours after tonight’s bombshell news, he will depart for Germany to attend the Munich Security Conference—another chance to shake off the shroud of corruption and appear statesmanlike. The law may eventually catch up to Netanyahu. But for now, it seems the politics will not.