Graft probe tests Netanyahu's hold on power
TEL AVIV - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a graft probe some believe could force him from office, but the four-term premier has overcome legal troubles in the past and remains a towering figure in Israeli politics.
Police questioned Netanyahu for some three hours at his official residence in Jerusalem on Monday night over tens of thousands of dollars in gifts allegedly given to him by wealthy supporters.
While an inquiry has been ongoing for months, it has now been elevated to a criminal probe and news of his questioning shook the Israeli political scene, setting off speculation over whether it will lead to his downfall.
Netanyahu himself bluntly told his opponents on Monday not to begin any "celebrations" yet, pledging as he has previously that "there will be nothing because there is nothing."
But some analysts argued that the threat seemed more substantial than in previous cases.
"The last couple of times that he was in this situation, he tried to say, 'You go after my wife, you go after my personal life, it's an illegal way to try to reverse democratic elections,'" Gayil Talshir, a political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said.
"I guess this will be the strategy this time also, but it looks more serious."
Much remains unknown about the investigation being overseen by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
He has confirmed that Netanyahu is suspected of receiving "gifts from businessmen," but has provided few other details.
- Wealthy supporters -
US billionaire and World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder has been among those questioned in the probe over gifts he allegedly gave Netanyahu and alleged spending on trips for him, Israeli media reported.
Lauder, whose family founded the Estee Lauder cosmetics giant, has long been seen as an ally of Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has also acknowledged receiving money from French tycoon Arnaud Mimran, who was sentenced to eight years in prison in France over a scam involving the trade of carbon emissions permits and taxes on them.
Netanyahu's office said he had received $40,000 in contributions from Mimran in 2001, when he was not in office, as part of a fund for public activities, including appearances abroad to promote Israel.
The allegations have put the right-wing premier's opponents -- both from within his party and elsewhere -- on alert for signs of his support among the public weakening.
Recent polls have suggested that if elections were held now, his Likud party would finish behind the centrist Yesh Atid, but that voters still prefer Netanyahu as prime minister.
Many analysts say that can be attributed to voters not seeing a viable alternative to the 67-year-old's leadership, but warn that could change quickly once a campaign is under way.
- Lessons from Olmert -
There is a recent example to draw lessons from, with Netanyahu's predecessor Ehud Olmert forced to resign while dogged by corruption allegations and now serving 27 months in prison.
"With Ehud Olmert, there was a moment in which his otherwise substantial following abandoned him because they increasingly became convinced that the allegations were solid," Amotz Asa-El, a former Jerusalem Post executive editor and currently a columnist for the paper, told AFP.
"I don't see this now with Prime Minister Netanyahu," he added, though cautioned that further revelations could change that.
Netanyahu and his family have overcome legal troubles in earlier years -- and involving similar accusations.
In 2000, prosecutors decided there was insufficient evidence to indict Netanyahu and his wife Sara following an investigation.
The probe then looked at whether they unlawfully kept gifts presented to Netanyahu during his first term as prime minister from 1996 and 1999.
It also investigated whether they had promised a Jerusalem contractor he would be paid out of the public purse for work done on their private home.
On Monday night, while Mandelblit confirmed Netanyahu was being investigated over the alleged gifts, he at the same time listed a series of other accusations that investigators had looked into and decided to drop.
Sara Netanyahu has however again come under scrutiny in recent months. In December, police questioned her for several hours over allegations that the couple used public funds to cover personal spending, Israeli media reported.
Netanyahu has served as premier for a total of nearly 11 years, fast approaching revered founding father David Ben-Gurion's 13, and shown himself to be a shrewd politician.
But if damaging details emerge from the probe, his considerable survival skills could be put to the test.
Such details could "puncture his public persona and portray him as a desperate and thus pathetic seeker of perks," Chemi Shalev of Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote.
"When that happens, Netanyahu could enter into a political death spiral and the smell of new elections will be in the air."