Israel Police has been ordered by one of the country's top judges to launch a criminal investigation into Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, after it emerged that it illegally funded a campaign encouraging Israelis to vote for right-wing parties in the upcoming general election.
Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, who heads Israel's Central Elections Committee – the body which oversees the country's election process – today ordered Israel Police to open a criminal probe into Likud's financing of the "Zazim Yamina" or "Moving Rightwards" campaign.
Zazim Yamina encourages the Israeli electorate to vote for one of the country's right-wing parties in the upcoming general election on 9 April. Despite presenting itself as a non-partisan campaign unaffiliated with any political party, this week it was revealed that Zazim Yamina could have received up to 15 million shekels ($4.1 million) in funding from Likud.
Though the Likud party had previously denied any connection to Zazim Yamina, this week Likud's director general, Tzuri Siso, admitted to the Central Elections Committee that the party was behind the operation.
Melcer has now fined the Likud party 15,000 shekels ($4,150) and recommended that the police open a criminal probe into whether Likud's financing of Zazim Yamina amounts to a criminal violation of campaign transparency laws. The probe will need to be completed within three months and submitted to Israel's Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, and State Comptroller Joseph Shapira, the Times of Israel reported.
Party reactions to Melcer's announcement were varied. According to the Jerusalem Post, "Likud said [it] intends to appeal to Melcer and request that he reconsider his decision and allow the party to present him with new data that was not presented to him prior to the formulation of his decision to investigate."
For its part, Zazim Yamina published a Facebook post slamming Melcer's announcement, writing: "Attorney Shachar Ben-Meir [who filed the petition against the campaign], tell us what are you afraid of?" The post added: "This lawsuit won't weaken us."
Meanwhile the Israeli Labor party welcomed the decision, saying: "The Likud is trying to steal the elections – we are stopping them. In the Knesset, on the streets and on the Internet, we will continue to fight against the lies of the Likud, without hesitating or faltering, even from the next government, when the Likud sits in the opposition."
With less than a week to go before election day, that yet another investigation has been opened into Netanyahu and his Likud party is unlikely to impact voters' choice on 9 April.
In February, Attorney General Mandelblit announced his recommendation that Netanyahu be indicted for three counts of corruption, after several-year-long investigations that have become known as Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000 respectively. Though commentators speculated that this could seriously impact Netanyahu's election prospects, despite a slight dip in the polls, Mandelblit's recommendation did not derail his re-election bid.
Since then, new details have emerged in the so-called "submarine affair", often dubbed Case 3000. Despite previously being cleared of any involvement in the affair, the State Comptroller's Office recently found that Netanyahu bought shares in Texas-based steel factory SeaDrift – a long-time supplier of German shipbuilding firm ThyssenKrupp – at a 95 per cent discount, allowing him to make millions of dollars in personal profit.
Just this week it emerged that a network of fake social media accounts have been used to boost Netanyahu's re-election campaign. Though the watchdog which disclosed the accounts – the Big Bots Project – found "no direct links" between the network, Netanyahu and Likud, it said the network "appeared to operate in coordination with the party and Mr. Netanyahu's re-election campaign" which could put it in violation of Israeli laws pertaining to elections, campaign finance, privacy and taxation.
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Though Netanyahu's rivals – most notably his biggest election challenger, head of the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) alliance Benny Gantz – have tried to use these myriad corruption affairs against him, that these are long-standing stories means that members of the Israeli public have likely already decided whether or not they are perturbed by Netanyahu's corruption.
Those who are committed to supporting the incumbent prime minister have vowed to do so irrespective of his impending indictment. Among these supporters are a number of right-wing parties who will provide the 61 seats needed for Netanyahu to form a majority government in the 120-seat Knesset, should he win next week.