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Benjamin Netanyahu vows to press on - despite police corruption file

The Likud leader faces no challenges to his leadership

    Benjamin netanyahu was in buoyant mood on Wednesday, the day after police recommended charges over corruption allegations
    Benjamin netanyahu was in buoyant mood on Wednesday, the day after police recommended charges over corruption allegations (Photo: Flash90)

    Israel’s prime minister seemed remarkably upbeat the morning after his country’s police recommended pressing charges against him for multiple counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

    The police recommendations were, he said, “a biased, extreme document, full of holes like Swiss cheese. [It] doesn’t hold water.”

    He blithely pronounced that: “The coalition is stable and we will continue working for you until the end of the term.”

    A veteran of police investigations, Mr Netanyahu knows full well his legal situation is dire.

    It is not just that the list of witnesses ready to testify against him, and the evidence accumulated by the police attesting to the corruption allegations, is sufficient for an indictment. The road could lead to a conviction and a stint in the VIP wing at Ayalon prison, which was built for his predecessor Ehud Olmert.

    But that would only be in the distant future. The present is about politics - and on the political front he is still safe.

    For now, Mr Netanyahu need not worry about his coalition sticking together.

    Within Likud, no-one is openly challenging his leadership. Among the five other parties comprising his majority, he has least to worry about from Shas and United Torah Judaism. The strictly Orthodox parties have supported him over the years through thick and thin so long as their budgetary and legislative demands are met.

    Defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, is himself a survivor of corruption charges. He will not resign over allegations against the prime minister.

    The weaker links for Mr Netanyahu are education minister Naftali Bennett and finance minister Moshe Kahlon. Both are less comfortable remaining in government but they have big ministries to run and no guarantee they will be so fortunate after the next elections. Besides, Mr Bennett’s right-wing support base remains on the prime minister’s side.

    On Wednesday evening, the main Israeli television channels carried the first polls measuring support for the prime minister following the police announcement. They all showed that, if elections were held now, the Netanyahu coalition of right-wing and religious parties would hold on to a majority. Likud even went up by one Knesset seat.

    On the question of whether he should remain in office, a small majority said he should resign but the bedrock of support for Mr Netanyahu was stable at around 40 per cent.

    Of course, this is just an initial reaction. His support may yet erode. But as things stand, it appears half of the Israeli public — which elected Likud-led governments in the last three elections — are not yet shifting to alternatives. Mr Netanyahu’s cabinet colleagues will be anxiously eyeing the polls over the next few months and any steady erosion in the coalition’s support could lead them to consider replacing the prime minister. But they are petrified of angering right-wing voters.

    If the politicians do not act, it will be up to legal officials to decide Mr Netanyahu’s fate.

    Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit does not want to be the civil servant who has to take down an elected prime minister. He is cautious and circumspect but even he will find it extremely difficult to water down such an emphatic police charge sheet.

    When Mr Mandelblit finally reaches his decision, much will depend on the nuances between his written conclusions and those of the police. If he doesn’t charge the Prime Minister on all the counts of bribery recommended by the investigators and his wordings are more ambiguous, it will be fodder for Mr Netanyahu and his supporters in their claims of persecution.

    But if the attorney general does echo the police, pressure will build —especially on Mr Kahlon and Mr Bennett — to finally show the Prime Minister the way to the exit.

    Mr Netanyahu does not believe they will do it. He is convinced that, even if he is indicted, he can continue to serve while also appearing in court.

    To have a prime minister running the country while attending sessions of what would be a very lengthy trial appears inconceivable to almost anyone but Mr Netanyahu. But who would stop it from happening?

    His colleagues may finally reach the conclusion that there is a limit to the damage one man’s legal issues can cause a nation.

    The Supreme Court could rule that having a prime minister in the dock is unconstitutional. Or perhaps it will be up to Israeli voters.

    As far as Mr Netanyahu is concerned, he is still planning to fight another election in late 2019 — and  win.

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