JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Key coalition partners said on Wednesday they would stick with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for now, pending a decision by the attorney general whether to indict him for bribery as recommended by police.
A decision could take months and Netanyahu’s government appeared stable for the time being. The right-wing premier has strongly denied the police allegations, calling them “full of holes, like Swiss cheese”.
“I want to reassure you, the coalition is stable. No one, not I, not anyone else, has plans to go to an election,” Netanyahu told a conference in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, the day after police made their recommendations public.
“We will continue to work with you for the good of Israel’s citizens until the end of the term,” he said.
Polls published on Israel’s three main television channels showed that more people believed the police’s version of events than Netanyahu’s. But they also said that if elections were to be held today, his right-wing Likud party would remain the largest party in parliament
Police on Tuesday said they had found sufficient evidence for the 68-year-old Netanyahu to be charged with bribery in two separate cases, presenting him with one of the biggest challenges to his long dominance of Israeli politics.
It is now up to Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, a former military advocate general and ex-cabinet secretary who was appointed to the country’s top legal post by Netanyahu, to decide whether to file criminal charges.
A public debate has long been under way in Israel on whether Mandelblit, who has avoided interviews, might be reluctant to prosecute a sitting prime minister for the first time in Israeli history, especially one who promoted him through government ranks.
Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing in both cases filed by police. With political signals that the government remained solid, Israeli markets rose on Wednesday. [L8N1Q42Y9]
Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, said that as long as Netanyahu was not convicted he should stay in office. “Truly, right now we are operating in a very synchronised way,” he said.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the far-right Jewish Home party, said: “I have decided to wait until the decision of the attorney general ... Regarding the moral aspect, the public will decide on voting day.”
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who heads the centrist Kulanu party, said he would do the same.
Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said none of Netanyahu’s coalition partners had any incentive to rock the boat.
“We don’t see for the time being any sign of defectors from the coalition. Maybe individuals will defect,” Diskin said. “I don’t see any kind of collapse in the foreseeable future.”
Signalling business as usual, Netanyahu has not changed plans to attend the annual Munich security conference that begins on Friday.
Netanyahu draws political strength in part from his close ties with U.S. President Donald Trump, who in December reversed decades of U.S. policy by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move hailed by Israelis although Palestinians - who claim East Jerusalem for the capital of a future state - and leaders across the Middle East were dismayed.
One of the cases against Netanyahu, known as Case 1000, alleged the “committing of crimes of bribery, fraud and breach of trust” by the prime minister.
Police named Arnon Milchan, a Hollywood producer and Israeli citizen, and Australian businessman James Packer, as having given gifts that included champagne, cigars and jewellery to Netanyahu and his family.
In all, the merchandise was worth more than one million Israeli shekels ($280,000), the statement said. Any legal proceedings would probably focus on whether political favours were sought or granted.
Netanyahu’s lawyers said the presents were simply tokens of friendship. Milchan’s lawyer, Boaz Ben Zur, told Reuters that the bribery allegation against his client was “baseless”.
“There is a very long process ahead, and we believe it will stop before any indictment,” Ben Zur said.
In an emailed statement, a spokesman for Packer said: “There is no allegation of wrongdoing on Mr. Packer’s behalf. The Israeli and Australian police have confirmed that he was interviewed as a witness, not a suspect.”
The second investigation, Case 2000, alleged “bribery, fraud and breach of trust by the prime minister” relating to his dealings with Arnon (Noni) Mozes, publisher of the biggest-selling Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth.
Netanyahu and Mozes, police said, discussed ways of slowing the growth of a rival newspaper, Israel Hayom, “through legislation and other means”. Police said they believed there was sufficient evidence to charge Mozes with offering a bribe.
Navit Negev and Iris Niv-Sabag, lawyers for Mozes, said in a statement: “Noni Mozes has strong legal arguments in his favour, and we believe that after an additional examination of the evidence by the prosecutor’s office the case against him will be closed and it will become clear that he committed no crime.”
Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Dan Williams and Ori Lewis, writing by Maayan Lubell, editing by Stephen Farrell, Jeffrey Heller, Mark Heinrich, Larry King