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Despite Support From Trump, Israel's Prime Minister Is Embroiled In Controversy


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the Trump administration's support. But back at home, he is having problems. Police are looking into favors he might have received from a Hollywood producer, and Netanyahu is battling an aggressive press that he says seeks his downfall.

NPR's Daniel Estrin reports.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: An Israeli police official has confirmed that investigators have questioned Netanyahu four times in recent months. Police say he's under investigation for suspected bribes. There's been a frenzy of Israeli media reports about Cuban cigars, pink champagne and jewelry, gifts allegedly given to the Netanyahu family by Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan.

He's an Israeli businessman who co-produced "Pretty Woman," "L.A. Confidential" and more than a hundred other films. According to press reports, Netanyahu lobbied then Secretary of State John Kerry to renew the Israeli producer's U.S. visa. Israel Radio's police reporter, Orly Alkalay is covering the interaction between Netanyahu and the police.

ORLY ALKALAY: Netanyahu and somebody said, Milchan is our friend. We give them presents. They give us presents. It's not like we order or we ask them to buy us. But the proof and what the police got in their hand is somebody used to call and say the supply is finished. You have to send - you have to send supply.

ESTRIN: A lawyer for the Hollywood producer says his client gave testimony to the police, but the lawyer won't elaborate. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing. And anyway, many in the Israeli public don't seem to mind.

MANNY BUTAVIA: So he gets champagne. Who cares?

ESTRIN: That's Manny Butavia at a lottery kiosk in Jerusalem.

BUTAVIA: I feel, for me, it's, like, become as a joke. What the left wing have? They can win election? No way that they going to win election. So they are going to find all kind of things, OK, cigars, champagne, a bottle of wine.

ESTRIN: There's more. Police supposedly have an audio-taped conversation in which Netanyahu offers to strike a deal with an Israeli newspaper publisher. He'd advance legislation to weaken the publisher's competitor if the publisher gave the prime minister positive coverage in his paper.

The Israeli press says Netanyahu probably did not end up helping the newspaper, but Netanyahu is clearly focused on what the media says about him. He's looking to increase government oversight on state and commercial media. He's been trying to stop a new public broadcasting corporation from launching. He's written on Facebook that the personnel are too left-wing. There's been speculation in the Israeli media this week that the issue could even lead Netanyahu to call new elections. And Netanyahu has accused leading Israeli investigative journalists and mainstream press of lies, propaganda and left-wing extremism.

Netanyahu's attacks on the press are effective, according to media expert Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler of the Israel Democracy Institute. The institute has found that public trust in the Israeli media has declined 50 percent since 2010 while Netanyahu's been in office.

TEHILLA SHWARTZ ALTSHULER: If you want to move the criticism about, let's say, your ability to lead the country, to be able to reach peace agreements, the easiest target here is the media as the mediator, right? It's not that Netanyahu is not a good prime minister. It's rather that the media is not mediating it properly.

ESTRIN: With regards to the police investigations, Netanyahu says the media and his political opponents should, quote, "wait with the celebrations." Even if the Israeli attorney general decides to indict Netanyahu soon, he'd still be allowed to stay in power. And it could take years before Netanyahu is brought to court.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF KARRIEM RIGGINS'S "AFRICA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.