Secret recordings, powerful media moguls, illicit gifts of cigars and champagne, betrayals by trusted aides. The three corruption cases against Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu have all the makings of a political thriller.
On Thursday, after more than three years of investigations, the most dominant Israeli politician of his generation was charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Investigators have not revealed the informants who provided the first tips about alleged corruption by the veteran conservative nicknamed “King Bibi.”
But from there they methodically picked off members of the prime minister’s inner circle of hand-picked aides and senior officials as state witnesses against him.
The mounting evidence was revealed in a series of tantalizing leaks that undercut what prosecutors allege was Netanyahu’s scheme to control his public image by trading regulatory favors to news companies for positive coverage.
The man heading the investigation was Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who was appointed by Netanyahu in 2016 and had previously served as Bibi’s cabinet secretary starting in 2013.
“I had the privilege of working with him and witnessing his many talents and capabilities as prime minister,” Mandelblit said in announcing the charges. “The decision to file an indictment against him was made with a heavy heart.”
Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing from the beginning of the investigations and remained defiant in his emotional prime-time national address on the night of his indictment. He called the cases an attempted coup to overthrow him, based on fabrications.
The indictment cited a striking example of Netanyahu’ sinfluence on the news involving a rare interview he gave,days before a 2015 election.
“Netanyahu was very angry about the questions,” Dov Gilhar,the journalist who interviewed him, told Israel’s public broadcaster Kan in March. After the interview, “Netanyahu ripped the neck-mic off, threw it on the floor, says nothing, gets up, walks into his office and slams the door.”
Gilhar told Kan that he had expected the exclusive interview to be published quickly, but two days passed before a chopped-down version ran after being edited without the journalist’s involvement.
The indictment alleges the edits were dictated by Netanyahu and Nir Hefetz, the media advisor to the prime minister’s family at the time and his former official spokesperson. Hefetz turned state witness in 2018.
Netanyahu has been charged with bribery in this case, as well as fraud and breach of trust.
Netanyahu said on Thursday that quid pro quo relations between politicians and the media were common but he was being singled out.
“They weren’t after the truth,” Netanyahu said of police and prosecutors. “They were after me.”
Attorney General Mandelblit has rejected Netanyahu’s accusations. A source close to Mandelblit described him as “very fond of Netanyahu.”
“But at the end of the day there’s no room for sentiment,”the source said. “Either the evidence tells the story or it doesn’t.”