Israeli police have been investigating multiple corruption allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for over a year. First, Netanyahu allegedly accepted extravagant gifts—such as expensive cigars, Champagne, and jewelry—from wealthy businessman Arnon Milchan in exchange for helping him secure a U.S. visa. Netanyahu is separately accused of striking a deal with the publisher of the newspaper Yediot Ahronoth, in which Netanyahu would push legislation that would curb competition from a rival paper, and in return Yediot Ahronoth would provide more favorable coverage of Netanyahu’s administration.
Recently, the Israeli police issued a recommendation that Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud, and a breach of trust in the two corruption cases. Perhaps anticipating this potential outcome, last December Netanyahu downplayed the significance of police recommendations, asserting that the “vast majority of police recommendations end in nothing.” Also last December, the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) passed, at the urging of Netanyahu’s supporters, a new Police Recommendations Law placing further restrictions on police recommendations for indictments. Though public pressure ultimately led to modifications so that the bill would not apply to the current investigations, it was also seen as prompted in large part by concerns about the possibility, now realized, that the police would recommend charges against the Prime Minister.
What, exactly, is so significant about the police recommendation in Israeli investigations into corruption and other matters? To get a better sense of what’s going on, it’s useful to take a step back and consider what Israel’s police recommendations are and whether they serve a useful function.
In the Israeli justice system, when police conclude an investigation, they submit a recommendation to the Justice Ministry explaining whether they think the case should result in an indictment. Then, the prosecutors assigned to the case write a detailed option on the matter based on the quality of evidence. The case is reviewed by Justice Ministry senior officials, who form an opinion that they give to the Attorney General. Finally, the Attorney General makes the ultimate decision about whether he thinks the government should bring an indictment. (It’s worth noting here that in two previous instances, one in 1997 and the other in 2000, the police recommended that Netanyahu and his wife be indicted on suspicion of bribery and graft, but in both cases the Attorney General declined to indict.)
It’s important to recognize that police recommendations have no legal bite; rather, they’re a police evaluation of the strength of the evidence against a public official. Therefore, the biggest immediate impact of police recommendations is the public reaction. And the police recommendations may be especially significant in these politically charged cases, because in Israel the police are independent actors. In contrast, the Attorney General—the one who has the final say on whether to indict an official—may not necessarily be completely neutral, because in addition to being the country’s top prosecutor, the Attorney General is also an adviser to the Prime Minister, which may lead the Attorney General, consciously or subconsciously, to try to avoid bringing charges against the Prime Minister or other senior government officials. A public police recommendation may help counter these tendencies. Moreover, the police recommendation can be sufficiently politically damaging that the recommendation itself may compel a public official to resign—as was the case, for example, with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who resigned shortly after police recommended that the Attorney General indict him on corruption charges.
The new bill that Netanyahu’s allies in the Knesset pushed through last year, the Police Recommendations Law, curbs the ability of police to issue public recommendations in future investigations. The bill prevents the police, in cases involving elected politicians or high-ranking civil servants, from making a formal written recommendation about whether prosecutors should indict, though the Attorney General or prosecutor can still request the police to give an opinion in writing if it’s considered to be necessary to make a decision. The bill also makes those who leak the contents of a police investigation liable with a sentence of up to two years in prison. Supporters of the new law argue that police recommendation can be harmful—damaging the target’s reputation and eroding political support even before any formal charges are filed.
While this new law doesn’t apply to the current cases against Netanyahu, he’s adopted another tactic for blunting the political significance of the police recommendations: Taking a page from Donald Trump (to whom he is sometimes compared), Netanyahu appears to be trying to undermine the legitimacy of institutions that might hold him accountable—in this case, by branding the corruption allegations against him by calling them “fake news” and claiming that the police recommendations are a “media witch hunt.”
These developments raise serious questions about whether the official police recommendations will continue to serve their traditional checking role in Israeli law and politics. The new law imposes significant limits on the ability of the police in future high-level investigations to make formal, public statements that may influence public opinion and the Attorney General’s decision. More troublingly, if Netanyahu successfully dismantles the public’s faith in the Israeli criminal justice system, then police recommendations, even if public, may no longer have much impact.