by Itsik Saban, Ariel Kahana, Efrat Forsher, Associated Press and Israel Hayom Staff
PM: Recommendation comes as no surprise, it was decided before the investigation began
In a move that could have far-reaching political ramifications, the Israel police on Sunday recommended indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on bribery charges related to a corruption case involving Israel's telecom giant Bezeq, prompting immediate calls for his resignation.
Police say their investigation has established an evidentiary foundation to charge Netanyahu and his wife Sara with accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust. The recommendations include filing charges against a number of additional suspects, including former Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch and his wife and son.
The case revolves around suspicions that confidants of Netanyahu promoted regulations worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the Bezeq telecom company in exchange for positive coverage of the prime minister and his wife on Bezeq's subsidiary news website, Walla.
The Bezeq case, known in the Israeli media as "Case 4,000," involves allegations that Netanyahu, who held the government's communications portfolio until last year, influenced regulation to benefit Elovitch. Former journalists at the Walla news site have attested to being pressured to refrain from negative reporting of Netanyahu.
After the police decision was announced, Netanyahu said, "The police recommendations about me and my wife come as no surprise to anyone, and neither does the obvious timing of their publication. These recommendations were decided and leaked even before the investigations began."
"Police recommendations have no legal standing," Netanyahu added. "Only recently, individuals with actual authority categorically rejected the police recommendations against a long list of public figures. I'm sure that in this case, too, the relevant bodies will examine the evidence and arrive at the same conclusion – that there was nothing there because there is nothing there."
Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecom giant -
Attorney Jack Chen, who represents Elovitch, said in response to the report Sunday that "the police leaks have been preparing us for this recommendation for some time. There's nothing new under the sun. We hope that now legal officials will be free to examine the evidence … and try to meet the difficult task of withstanding the immense pressure on them [to indict]."
The pressure to indict, he said, has been a constant theme in the investigation "from the start, and it tainted it."
"Mr. Elovitch stands by his claim that he has committed no crime," the attorney stated.
Netanyahu has been questioned by police at least 12 times in connection with Case 4,000, the most serious of a number of corruption investigations in which the prime minister has been implicated.
Two of his top confidants, his former spokesman Nir Hefetz and Communications Ministry Director General Shlomo Filber, turned state witnesses earlier this year in exchange for immunity and are believed to have provided police with incriminating evidence.
Police have already recommended indicting Netanyahu on corruption charges in two other cases. One involves accepting gifts from billionaire friends and the second revolves around alleged offers of advantageous legislation for a newspaper in return for positive coverage.
The prime minister has denied any wrongdoing, dismissing the accusations as a witch hunt orchestrated by the media.
After the police recommendations were announced on Sunday, opposition politicians began demanding that Netanyahu resign and call an early election.
"The most serious bribery case yet leaves no room for doubt," said Tamar Zandberg, head of the dovish opposition Meretz party. "A prime minister who is accused of the most serious offense in the Israeli law books cannot keep serving one minute longer."
"The prime minister has no moral mandate to keep his seat and must resign today. Israel must go to elections," Zandberg said.
Other opposition figures, including opposition leader Tzipi Livni, quickly joined in the call for Netanyahu to resign.
The coalition, however, took a different tone. Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel tweeted that "I earnestly hope that the police recommendation will be revealed as unfounded. I very much hope that the prime minister will be acquitted and that the government will continue to operate for the benefit of the Israeli people."
During a meeting of Likud ministers, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said that, speaking on behalf of the ministers, he offers his full support for the prime minister.
Netanyahu responded: "Thank you very much, all of you, but you're obviously taking this more seriously than I am."
Itsik Saban, Ariel Kahana, Efrat Forsher, Associated Press and Israel Hayom Staff
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