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In what feels like a terrible case of deja vu, Israelis began their new year watching a police convoy enter the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday night.
They were there to question the nation’s leader as a possible criminal suspect after nine months of exploration that has unfolded painfully slowly then suddenly accelerated into a full-fledged investigation.
It all takes place as former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sits in prison, serving a 19-month sentence for bribery and obstruction of justice, related to wrongdoing in an earlier position he held as mayor of Jerusalem.
As the Netanyahu investigation unfolded over the summer and fall of 2016, police cultivated a cloud of mystery over the affair presumably to prevent the prime minister from taking steps that could stymie their probe.
Here’s a look at where the investigation stands and what may ensue:
What crime is Netanyahu suspected of committing?
Police are investigating Netanyahu over suspicions related to two separate issues. In the first, said to be the smaller case, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving favors and gifts from a number of wealthy businesspeople, one of whom appears to be cosmetics tycoon and philanthropist Ronald Lauder, who has also been questioned by police.
It’s not entirely clear what is meant by “gifts” – we’re not talking about envelopes stuffed with cash, yet not about small trinkets or tokens, either. Police suspect that the value of what Netanyahu’s friends have bestowed upon him amounts to tens of thousands of dollars. Presumably Netanyahu will not be able deny receiving the gifts, but will characterize them as heartfelt offerings from close friends who happen to be multi-millionaires and billionaires.
The second investigation is the one that is being teased as a possible larger-scale bombshell, but very few details have been made public as yet.
Will Netanyahu resign because of the investigation?
Merely being investigated by police, even if over an extensive period, would not force a prime minister to leave office. The road to an indictment can be long. In the case of Olmert, an indictment took many months, and it took years more before any verdict came.
The present Knesset may run the course of its term before a possible indictment is handed down, and Netanyahu could serve out his term despite being under investigation. How effectively he could run the country while under police investigation is another matter. His predecessor, Olmert stepped down during his investigation in a move that surprised many.
What if there is an indictment?
If an allegation against Netanyahu leads to an indictment, on the basis of recent precedents of cabinet ministers charged with crimes or wrongdoing, he may be required to resign.
If Netanyahu resigns, will the country then move quickly to elections?
Technically, it doesn’t have to, if Likud and the cabinet could successfully rally around a replacement to Netanyahu. But that is rather difficult to imagine.
Could elections be called even before an indictment is handed down?
Yes. And that’s something that Netanyahu might want to happen. If the Knesset is dissolved and early elections are called, it could prolong or even delay the investigation. In such a scenario, Netanyahu would be able to campaign as a victim of what he sees as political rivals – in the opposition, the legal elites, and of course, the media. He could appeal to the voters to save him from the baseless witch hunt.
Who has the best chance of becoming Israel’s new prime minister?
Given the credibility of polls after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, turning to them as a real forecast could be viewed as a foolish move. But skepticism withstanding, the answer could very well be… Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.
According to a December 31 public opinion poll released by Channel 10, if Knesset elections were held now, the opposition Yesh Atid party, headed by Yair Lapid, would become the largest in parliament, with 27 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.
Likud, which has 30 seats today, would shrink to 23 – and could possibly shrink even further if it ran without Netanyahu, or with a politically damaged Netanyahu at the top of the ticket. Among other parties led by an aspiring replacement for Netanyahu, Habayit Hayehudi, headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, would become the third largest party with 12 seats; Avigdor Lieberman, with Yisrael Beitenu polling at 10 seats; and Moshe Kahlon, whose Kulanu party drops from 10 to seven in the polls.
The party with the biggest cause for worry if new elections are held soon is the Zionist Union, whose number plummeted shockingly in this poll – from 24 seats to eight seats. It would require a miracle, it seems, for their current party leader, Isaac Herzog, to have a shot at leading a post-Netanyahu government.