NEW DELHI: India is worried. But of course,silently lest a whiff of the serious corruption charges threatening to dislodge Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu find their way into the Indian media and Parliament on the eve of his much touted visit to India. And queer the pitch that the Ministry of External Affairs has been carefully preparing to ensure a highly successful four day visit by “friend” Netanyahu who is to be received by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 14 in Ahmedabad directly.

But now not just the visit but the very future of Netanyahu and his government in Israel is in jeopardy over serious charges of fraud and breach of trust.” The investigation into these charges began in January 2017, with the year witnessing at least six rounds of interrogation by the police of the Israel Prime Minister. Each round lasted several hours, according to Israeli newspapers.

As 2017 draws to a close the Jerusalem Post has been hinting at a “political earthquake” recording speculation at senior levels about the toppling of the Netanyahu government and early elections next year. That the Israeli Prime Minister is now worried is indicated by a meeting he held with rabbis in Tel Aviv, seeking their support in what he claimed was a conspiracy to bring down his “nationalist” government.

This was after several rallies against him in Israel, with a particularly strident right wing anti-corruption demonstration ringing alarm bells in the government.

The case against Netanyahu, according to the Israel media, involves International movie mogul Arnon Milchan, who was questioned in London in September this year. The Jerusalem Post reported that Milchan, a central figure in this case, “ reportedly gave large quantities of cigars and champagne to the prime minister and his wife, Sara.” His driver and personal assistant confirmed this in recent testimonies with Channel 10 News reporting that Sara Netanyahu had rejected these claims that she had demanded these “supplies”.

The police investigation is to determine whether the Israeli Prime Minister helped benefit the movie moghul in return. Netanyahu has continued to claim that these were exchanges between friends of 20 years, and not bribery or breach of trust.

Police question Netanyahu for the sixth time in corruption probe
A car enters the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem yesterday, where Benjamin Netanyahu was questioned for more than four hours by police. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The Israeli media has pointed at some possible return of favours, one being the establishment of a free trade zone at the Jordanian border nine years ago here Milchan reportedly asked Netanyahu to “promote the project following a consultation with Indian billionaire Ratan Tata, whom the Israeli police recently questioned.” This initiative reportedly was not completed.

The investigation now seems to be reaching a climax. The Jerusalem Post reported just a day ago, “ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criminal investigations have already caused a political earthquake that could lead to the downfall of his government, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid said at his weekly faction on Monday in an answer to a question from The Jerusalem Post.

He spoke about speculation that the police recommendations to indict Netanyahu that are expected next month could persuade Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon or other key figures in the coalition to topple the government.”

Jerusalem Post further reported on December 28: “Police recommendations on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption cases are expected to be announced in the coming weeks, and they will be “earth-shattering,” according to Lior Chorev, a former external adviser to the Israel Police.

Speaking at a conference in Eilat last weekend, he said once the recommendations to indict Netanyahu are announced, the Knesset will call to hold early elections – possibly as soon as next May.”

Of course Ministers in the government have been contradicting such claims with Netanyahu himself maintaining that such police investigations do not always lead to indictments. However, this time around the investigations that began with just a casual mention at the beginning of the year, have acquired seriousness by the end of 2017 to a point where seniors in and out of Israeli government are agreed that there is a crisis, with predictions about the imminent fall of the Netanyahu government.

People gather in Jerusalem for an anti-corruption rally, December 23, 2017.
People gather in Jerusalem for an anti-corruption rally, December 23, 2017. Emil Salman In Haaretz

Indicators for this are also in the increased pace of interrogations, the last two coming within ten days of each other as against the eight months between the fourth and the fifth rounds. Also in August the police let it be known that the PM was suspected of fraud, bribery and breach of trust.

The Indian Foreign Office is keeping a close watch on the developments as this will impact on not just Netanyahu’s forthcoming visit to India, but the very close relationship that the two leaders of nationalist governments had forged between India and Israel.

Interestingly in defending himself to the rabbis Netanyahu raised the issue of the Oslo Peace accords that have served as a red rag to the extreme right in Israel, but this time the Palestinian bogey did not seem to have yielded results with participating rabbis being quoted in the media as questioning the PM’s ‘opportunism’ in seeking them out for his own benefit. A touch of Netanyahu desperation there and a beginning of a fast approaching end perhaps?