March 2, 2018 / 10:14 AM / 4 months ago

Explainer: Netanyahu investigation - What happens next?

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Benjamin Netanyahu is the dominant Israeli politician of his generation. On the domestic and international stage, no rival comes close to the veteran Likud Party leader known widely as “Bibi”.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Gali Tibbon/Pool/File Photo

Israeli police on Feb. 13 recommended that the 68-year-old,four-term prime minister be indicted for bribery in two cases. On Friday, he was questioned in connection with a third investigation.

It is by no means certain that Netanyahu will be indicted.The police can only make recommendations. It is now up to Israel’s attorney-general, Avichai Mandelblit, to decide whether to press charges. That decision could take months.

But the very fact that the leader of Israel’s ruling right-wing coalition is being scrutinised by prosecutors will likely affect the political calculations of his supporters, rivals and opponents within his own coalition, and across the political spectrum.

Here is a guide to Netanyahu’s career, some possible candidates to succeed him, and what effect any change in leadership might have on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and across a Middle East in which Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other regional power brokers are all watching closely.

DOES NETANYAHU HAVE TO RESIGN?

Netanyahu is under no strict legal obligation to quit following the police recommendations. Indeed, he has given every indication that he intends to remain in office while pursuing a legal battle.

There has been little public pressure from coalition partners for him to step down, although that could change as fellow politicians and the Israeli public study details of the cases.

There was speculation before the police recommendations weremade public that Netanyahu might call early elections, seeking a public mandate that would make a prosecutor think twice before moving against him.

However, Netanyahu said in a televised address that he was “certain” the next elections would be held on schedule. They are not due until November 2019. Recent polls show on the one hand that about half of Israelis believe the police over Netanyahu and think he should step down. On the other hand, surveys also show strong support among Netanyahu’s core base, putting Likud ahead of all the other parties.

HOW DID NETANYAHU BECOME SUCH A DOMINANT FIGURE?

Netanyahu has been in power on and off since 1996. The sonof a hawkish Israeli historian, he was born in Tel Aviv in 1949and moved to the United States in the 1960s when his father gotan academic job there.

He is the middle of three brothers, all of whom served inelite Israeli commando units. The eldest, Yonatan “Yoni”Netanyahu, became a national hero after he was killed in 1976leading an assault team that stormed Entebbe Airport in Ugandato rescue Israelis and other airline passengers taken hostage byradical Palestinian and West German hijackers.

Netanyahu says his brother’s death “changed my life anddirected it to its present course”.

Telegenic, and speaking fluent American-accented English, hefirst gained domestic and international attention as Israel’sambassador to the United Nations during the first Palestinianintifada (uprising) that broke out in 1987.

He used this as a springboard to secure the leadership ofthe right-wing Likud party, running on a platform of oppositionto the 1993 Oslo interim peace accords that were spearheaded byU.S. President Bill Clinton, Israel’s then-prime minister,Yitzhak Rabin, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

But Rabin was assassinated in 1995 and Netanyahu was electedprime minister the following year, the youngest-ever Israeli tohold the position and the first to be born in Israel.

Despite having opposed Oslo, Netanyahu worked with Arafat ondeploying Palestinian forces into the flashpoint West Bank cityof Hebron, and even shook Arafat’s hand in public.

But his first term as prime minister was widely seen as afailure. Critics assailed what was seen as a divisive style ofleadership, and after losing the election in 1999 he spent aperiod in the second rank of Israeli politics, overshadowed evenwithin his own party by former general Ariel Sharon.

Returning to prominence after Sharon left Likud and thensuffered an incapacitating stroke in 2005, Netanyahu was electedfor his second term in 2009 – 10 years after his first ended. The last election was in 2015, and Netanyahu will become Israel’s longest-serving leader if he serves the full four years until elections are next due in November 2019.

A familiar figure in Washington dating back to the 1980sReagan administration, Netanyahu most recently had a strainedrelationship with President Barack Obama, especially over hisopposition to the July 2015 Iran nuclear deal promoted by theU.S. leader.

But he has been much closer to Obama’s successor, PresidentDonald Trump. On Dec. 6 last year Trump reversed decades of U.S.foreign policy and recognised Jerusalem as the capital ofIsrael. He also said he would move the U.S. Embassy to the city.

Both moves were hailed by Netanyahu and proved very popularwith Israelis, although Palestinians - who claim East Jerusalemfor the capital of a future state - and political and religiousleaders across the Middle East were dismayed.

So proud is Netanyahu of his relationship with Trump that hehas a picture of the two shaking hands at the top of his Facebook page. He is likely to use his relationship with theleader of the world’s most powerful country in any future appealto the Israeli public.

WHO ARE THE POTENTIAL SUCCESSORS?

Opinion polls suggest that Yair Lapid, head of the centristYesh Atid opposition party, is the strongest candidate tosucceed Netanyahu if he is forced out. But other candidatescould enter the race, which would shift the balance.

Within Netanyahu’s Likud party, a number of members of hiscabinet are vying to succeed him, including Public SecurityMinister Gilad Erdan, Intelligence Minister Israel Katz andformer Education Minister Gideon Saar. None has shown strongsigns of planning to depart significantly from Netanyahu’shawkish policies.

Outside Netanyahu’s party, Defence Minister AvigdorLieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett are possible candidates. Both head far-right parties in Netanyahu’s governingcoalition.

WHAT HAPPENS TO ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN, REGIONAL CONFLICTS IF HE QUITS?

A cloud over Netanyahu’s political future would compound theuncertainty surrounding prospects for a resumption ofIsraeli-Palestinian peace talks that collapsed in 2014.

If Netanyahu steps down, a successor from within Likud wouldneed the support of the party’s hardline central committee,which passed a non-binding resolution in December calling for annexation of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, captured by Israelin a 1967 war and which Palestinians want for a future state.

Recent tensions along the Syrian and Lebanese borders havenot so far proved to be a major factor in domestic politicalcalculations, as even Netanyahu’s political opponents say theydo not believe his legal troubles would affect hisdecision-making on security matters.

Reporting by Maayan Lubell, Jeffrey Heller and Stephen Farrell, Editing by William Maclean

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