Netanyahu Clings to Power After Police Recommend Indictment
(Bloomberg) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared he has no plan to go to early elections, as his coalition closed ranks around a leader who police say should stand trial for bribery.
Coalition members denounced the police recommendations, saying the prime minister should continue to govern while Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit reviews the case and decides whether to press charges. Netanyahu and his allies said the fact that police relied on testimony from his political rival Yair Lapid shows the investigation was biased.
“The investigation lasted a year and a half” and now it turns out that “Lapid is a key witness,” Netanyahu said at a conference Wednesday. “This is the same Lapid who vowed to replace me at any cost.”
The attorney general’s review of the case could take months, giving Netanyahu -- who denies any wrongdoing -- time to shore up his ranks further. Some coalition partners have shown no inclination to see his government crumble, while others have signaled they may have second thoughts if Mandelblit moves to indict a sitting Israeli premier for the first time. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has said Netanyahu can continue to govern even if indicted, while Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Wednesday that Netanyahu can stay in office until any conviction.
“We might see some political turmoil, but I think the government is quite stable,” said Eran Vigoda-Gadot, a political science professor at the Haifa University. “It’s important to realize that Netanyahu’s political base is very loyal, these are people with an emotional connection to the Likud party. They’ll say ‘So what if he took some gifts and some money? He’s a brilliant English speaker who knows how to represent us in the world stage.’ ”
The shekel pared Tuesday’s losses against the dollar, adding 0.1 percent to 3.5324 at 12:25 p.m. in Tel Aviv. Israel’s TA-35 stock index was up 0.7 percent to 1477.99.
Police said Tuesday they found evidence Netanyahu traded his influence for favors. In one case he’s accused of receiving gifts of champagne, cigars and jewelry worth 1 million shekels ($283,100) from wealthy friends including Israeli-born Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan, who allegedly received financial benefits from the government in return.
Police said Netanyahu tried to promote legislation to extend a 10-year tax exemption for returning Israelis on income earned abroad — which Israel’s media nicknamed the “Milchan Law” because it could have saved him tax expenses.
Lapid, a former finance minister who polls show is a top contender for the premiership if Netanyahu falls, said he gave brief testimony “like any law-abiding citizen” on the attempt to double the tax-exempt period.
A second case involves Netanyahu’s discussions with Arnon Mozes, publisher of the Yediot Ahronoth newspaper, to promote legislation that would weaken another daily in exchange for favorable coverage.
Police said Milchan and Mozes should also face bribery charges. Both said they believed there was no basis for charges against them, according to the Times of Israel.
In a press conference Tuesday, Netanyahu called the recommendations “ludicrous” and claimed the investigations were intended to topple his government.
Reactions to the recommendations split along partisan lines. Opposition politicians called on Netanyahu to resign, while members of his Likud Party painted Netanyahu as the victim of a witchhunt by left-wing opponents and the media.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin called the police report a “despicable move” to “stage a coup against the voters’ will.” Ultra-Orthodox partners spoke of an “attempted putsch.” Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said on Facebook that “only the attorney general is empowered to decide whether or not to file an indictment.”
The weakest link was Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who has declared he’ll run for the premiership when the Netanyahu era ends. The Jewish Home party chairman urged the public to wait for the attorney general’s decision, but rebuked Netanyahu for “not living up to the standard” expected of Israeli leaders by receiving such gifts.
In another sign of the government’s stability, parliament passed the proposed 2019 budget in the first of three readings, just hours after the police recommendations were released.
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