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Netanyahu’s corruption woes come to a head

International | Prosecutors say evidence is piling up against the Israeli prime minister
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 2/27/18, 03:03 pm

Israeli police this week will question Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in two corruption cases that could herald the end of the four-term leader’s rule.

The interrogation stems from accusations that members of Netanyahu’s administration received more than $1 billion in bribes to obtain nuclear submarines from a German company. In a second case, investigators alleged Netanyahu made a deal worth millions of dollars with Israeli telecom company Bezeq in exchange for the company’s news site, Walla, offering positive coverage of the prime minister and his family.

Last week, Netanyahu’s former communications ministry director, Shlomo Filber, agreed to testify against him. Yossi Mekelberg, a research fellow with U.K.-based Chatham House, said the growing witness and evidence lists are a breakthrough in Netanyahu’s history of corruption accusations. “The allegations have been on for a long time,” Mekelberg said. “He did everything in his power to delay it.”

On Feb. 13, police recommended the attorney general indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery and breach of trust in two other cases. Investigators accuse him of collecting approximately $280,000 in gifts from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer in exchange for tax breaks and investment opportunities. In another investigation, police said they have access to a recording in which Netanyahu told Arnon Mozes, publisher of the Yediot Ahronot daily, he would boost legislation that would affect the newspaper’s competitor in exchange for positive media coverage.

Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, described the cases as Netanyahu’s toughest challenge yet. Sachs said the reaction from Netanyahu’s coalition partners and the public’s reaction in the upcoming 2019 elections would determine his fate. “His political career is not over, but he is entering a major, perhaps final battle for political survival,” Sachs said.

Avi Gabbay, head of the opposition Labor Party, earlier said he was preparing for elections since “the Netanyahu era is over,” according to The Times of Israel. But Mekelberg said Netanyahu’s legacy proves he won’t let go easily. “Netanyahu is not the type to quit,” he said. “He will hold with his last breath onto power.”

As the corruption scandal heats up, the United States continues to work toward relocating its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In a letter to Congress last week, the U.S. State Department said it would relocate the U.S. Embassy in stages, starting with a temporary facility in May. The timeline will align with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence on May 14. Already, U.S. Republican Party donor Sheldon Adelson offered to pay for at least part of the costs of the new embassy.

Netanyahu lauded the temporary move as a “historic moment for the state of Israel.” Daniel Levy, president of the U.S./Middle East Project, told Russia’s Sputnik International that Israeli foreign policy would likely remain the same whether or not Netanyahu remains in office: “Right now, nobody who stands a chance at becoming prime minister is offering a different outlook on regional foreign policy.”

Associated Press/Photo by Fareed Khan Associated Press/Photo by Fareed Khan Demonstrators show support for Christians on Monday in Karachi, Pakistan.

Pakistan addresses abuse of blasphemy law

Pakistani Deputy Attorney General Arshad Mehmood Kayani recently submitted proposed amendments to the Islamabad High Court that would stiffen punishments for false blasphemy accusations, Pakistan’s Express Tribune reported. If adopted, false accusers would face the same punishments as blasphemers: life imprisonment or the death penalty.

“This is the first time the federal government is equating punishment for false accusation of blasphemy,” Kayani told the paper. “The draft might take a few months to be incorporated into [Pakistan’s cybercrime laws], but the federal government is seriously pursuing the matter.”

International Christian Concern’s William Stark said, “Hopefully the amendment would at least be a deterrent to people seeking to misuse the law.” But with elections coming up, he was concerned implementing it could be “politically untenable.”

Stark recently spoke with Pakistani attorneys representing different religions about the proposal and learned a Christian attorney thought it was great while a Muslim lawyer preferred total repeal rather than a half-measure.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are notoriously abused, especially against Christians. Just days after the proposal, Muslims accused Patras Masih, an 18-year-old Christian, and his cousin, Sajid, of blasphemy in a Facebook post that included an Islamic symbol. Their accusers mobbed the Masih's neighborhood and threatened to burn down the family's house. Pakistan Today reported Friday that following their arrest and detainment, Sajid was hospitalized after “falling off” the fourth floor of the Federal Investigation Agency building. —Julia A. Seymour

Associated Press/Photo by Ariana Cubillos Associated Press/Photo by Ariana Cubillos Street vendors in Caracas, Venezuela

Venezuela launches cryptocurrency

Venezuela last week launched a new digital currency, called the “petro” bitcoin, in its latest response to the country’s crippling economy. Venezuela is battling high inflation, food shortages, and overwhelming debt. The United States and Europe both placed sanctions that prevent the country from amassing more debt. President Nicolas Maduro said the digital currency, backed by Venezuela’s oil reserves, could be used to pay for consulate services, tourism, and some oil and gas sales. Maduro said the petro already earned $735 million worth of purchases.

Venezuelan opposition leaders cautioned that the currency sale constituted illegal borrowing by the government. The U.S. Treasury Department also warned U.S. citizens that any purchase of the currency would violate sanctions.

Jean Paul Leidenz, a senior economist at Venezuela-based EcoAnalitica, said a new currency alone wouldn’t resolve the country’s economic crisis. “You cannot stop hyperinflation by creating a new currency and doing nothing else,” he said. “The government has no plans of undertaking structural reform.” —O.O.

China’s Xi tightens hold on power

The Chinese ruling party on Sunday announced a plan to remove term limits from the country’s constitution, paving the way for President Xi Jinping to rule beyond his second five-year term. The Communist Party’s Central Committee proposed that the constitution revision exclude the stipulation that the president and vice president “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms.” The proposal is expected to pass next month at the annual parliamentary meeting. The term limit is the latest amendment that tightens Xi’s grip on power. The parliamentary meeting, beginning March 5, will also add Xi’s political thought to the constitution.

Xi’s government in recent months intensified its crackdown on religious and political dissent. Li Baiguang, an internationally renowned Christian lawyer, died Sunday at the army hospital in eastern China under suspicious circumstances. China Aid reported the hospital said he had liver problems and bled to death despite his clean health record. The 49-year-old lawyer in 2008 received the Democracy Award from the National Endowment for Democracy and met three times with former U.S. President George W. Bush during his time in office. —O.O.

Iceland proposes circumcision ban

Lawmakers in Iceland proposed a bill to ban nonmedical circumcision of boys, equating it to female genital mutilation. Religious leaders view the bill as a strike against religious freedom since circumcision is a traditional practice in Judaism and Islam. The bill considers circumcision a human rights violation “since boys are not able to give an informed consent on an irreversible physical intervention.” It proposes up to six years in prison for violators.

The Directorate of Health in Iceland said only 21 boys under the age of 18 have been circumcised since 2006. Meanwhile, Iceland continues to support the abortion of nearly 100 percent of babies whose prenatal tests show they have Down syndrome. Between 80 and 85 percent of women choose to undergo the tests, according to Landspitali University Hospital in Reykjavik. The country’s testing and abortion laws mean only an average of one or two babies are born each year with Down syndrome. —O.O.

Onize Ohikere

Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.

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