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Netanyahu's legal woes grow as police seek new bribery charges

by Reuters
Sunday, 2 December 2018 20:05 GMT

* Police have already recommended charges in other cases

* Netanyahu holds single-seat majority in parliament

* Allegations include regulatory intervention

* Netanyahu says allegations are baseless (Adds fresh Netanyahu denial of allegations in speech)

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM, Dec 2 (Reuters) - Israeli police on Sunday said they had found enough evidence for bribery and fraud charges to be brought against Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife in a third corruption case against the Israeli prime minister.

Authorities allege Netanyahu awarded regulatory favours to Israel's leading telecommunications company, Bezeq Telecom Israel, in return for more positive coverage of him and his wife on a news website, Walla, owned by the company.

Netanyahu has long denied wrongdoing. In a speech to his Likud party in Tel Aviv to celebrate the start of the Jewish festival of Hanukka, he accused the police of instigating what he described as a "tainted process" against him and his wife.

Now in his fourth term, Netanyahu dominates Israeli politics. Yet he is politically unusually vulnerable as his right-wing coalition's majority has shrunk to a precarious single seat.

"It's clear for everybody to see the transparent, petty timing of the publication of the pre-determined recommendations, the deliberate leaks, the tainted process and the false allegations about me and my wife," Netanyahu said.

"(The investigation) has been a match-fix. The recommendations aren't surprising and the timing isn't surprising."

The final decision on whether to indict rests with the attorney-general, who is still weighing whether to charge Netanyahu in the other two cases.

These relate to allegations that Netanyahu accepted gifts from businessmen and that he tried to strike a deal with another media mogul for better coverage in return for curbs on a competing newspaper.

Most of Netanyahu's coalition partners have said they will wait for a decision by the attorney-general before deciding how to proceed.

Some analysts have said Netanyahu could put pressure on the attorney-general to think twice before indicting him by calling a snap election to seek a stronger popular mandate. The next election is not due until November 2019.

Netanyahu has said he wants to serve out his term, but politicians close to him say that his precarious parliamentary situation means an early election is likely.

In a joint statement with the Israel Securities Authority, police said they also found sufficient evidence to charge Shaul Elovitch, a family friend of Netanyahu, with bribery.

At the time, Elovitch was Bezeq's chairman and controlling shareholder. The statement said there was also evidence to charge Bezeq's then-CEO Stella Handler with fraud.

Elovitch and Handler have denied wrongdoing. They were both briefly detained earlier this year and have resigned from Bezeq.

The police said the main suspicion was that Netanyahu "acted out of a conflict of interest by intervening and making regulatory decisions that favour Shaul Elovitch and Bezeq".

It alleged that Netanyahu had sought to interfere with the content of Bezeq's Walla website "in a way that would benefit him".

Netanyahu, who also served as communications minister from 2015-2017, said in his speech that he had neither received anything from Elovitch, not given him anything.

The police also recommended that Netanyahu and his wife be charged with fraud and breach of trust. (Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell, Steven Scheer, Ari Rabinovitch and Ori Lewis; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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