Benjamin Netanyahu survives as coalition allies stick by Israeli PM over corruption allegations
Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition allies said Wednesday they would not walk out of the government after police recommended charging the prime minister with corruption, easing the most immediate threat to Mr Netanyahu’s leadership.
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The heads of two smaller parties in Mr Netanyahu’s coalition said they would reserve judgement until Israel’s attorney general makes a final decision on whether to prosecute the prime minister for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Police said Tuesday that after more than a year of investigating they had evidence Mr Netanyahu accepted 1 million shekels (£200,000) in bribes – an announcement which electrified Israeli politics and led to speculation that the prime minister’s 11-year hold on power is coming to an end.
But Mr Netanyahu has said he will not resign over the “baseless” allegations and is confident that prosecutors will ultimately decide against charging him with a crime.
On Wednesday morning, Mr Netanyahu said his government was not going to collapse over the police recommendations. “I want to reassure you, the coalition is stable. No one, not I, not anyone else, has plans to go to an election,” he said.
His confidence came after two coalition leaders – Moshe Kahlon, the head of the centrist Kulanu party, and Naftali Bennet, leader of the rightwing Jewish Home – both said they would wait for the attorney general’s decision on charges.
Mr Bennet said the prime minister was “not living up to” the standard of a national leader by accepting lavish gifts from millionaires, but that he would nonetheless keep his party inside the coalition.
“We are a state of law, and Prime Minister Netanyahu is still presumed innocent. Therefore, I have decided to wait until the decision of the attorney general,” Mr Bennett said.
The announcement appeared to secure Mr Netanyahu’s position for now as Israel waits for weeks or potentially even months before Avichai Mandelblit, the attorney general, decides on charges.
Mr Netanyahu is under no legal obligation to resign if he is charged with a crime but his position would probably become politically untenable.
In an intriguing development to the complex corruption case, it emerged that one of Mr Netanyahu’s chief political rivals was also a key witness for police and would likely take the stand in an eventual prosecution.
Yair Lapid heads the centrist Yesh Atid party but served as Mr Netanyahu’s finance minister in his last coalition government. Detectives questioned him over allegations Mr Netanyahu accepted bribes from Arnon Milchan, a Hollywood producer, in return for passing legislation favourable to the businessman.
The prime minister and his allies excoriated the police and Mr Lapid, saying that detectives were relying on evidence provided by a man who has every interest in seeing Mr Netanyahu driven from power. “This is the same Lapid who vowed to topple me at any cost,” Mr Netanyahu said.
For his part, Mr Lapid said “this situation does not make me happy” and that he would rather challenge Mr Netanyahu in an election than a courtroom.
But he said he had no choice but to answer detectives’ questions when they came to him as part of the investigation. “Like any law-abiding citizen who is asked by the police to help them get to the truth, I went and answered their questions.”
Both Mr Lapid and Avi Gabbay, the leader of the Labour Party, called on Mr Netanyahu to resign in the face of the police accusations against him.
Mr Gabbay also called on leaders of the other coalition parties to walk out of the government and force new elections. “The problem is their chairs are very comfy," he said.
Mr Netanyahu has been in this position twice before – once in 1997 and once in 2000 – where police have recommended that he face charges. Both times prosecutors declined to indict him.
In 2008, when Mr Netanyahu was leader of the opposition, he called on then prime minister Ehud Olmert to step down in the face of corruption allegations. “A prime minister who is sunk up to his neck in investigations has no moral and public mandate, he said at the time.