The Herald (South Africa)

Israeli PM rejects calls to go

Key allies stand by Netanyahu as police seek indictment for graft

- Mike Smith

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected calls to step down yesterday after police recommende­d his indictment for corruption, the biggest challenge yet to the right-wing premier’s long tenure in power. Netanyahu again came out swinging yesterday, harshly criticisin­g the police investigat­ion against him while making clear he had no intention of resigning.

His governing coalition, seen as the most right-wing in Israeli history, appears firm for now, but reactions from key members in the coming days will be watched closely for signs of fissures.

“I can reassure you that the coalition is stable,” Netanyahu, 68, said at an event in Tel Aviv.

“Neither me nor anyone else has plans for elections. We’re going to continue to work together for the good of Israeli citizens until the end of the term.”

Netanyahu, prime minister for nearly 12 years, also harshly denounced the police recommenda­tions against him as “full of holes, like Swiss cheese”.

Police recommende­d on Tuesday that he be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of public trust after a long-running investigat­ion.

The attorney-general must now decide how to move forward with the case, a process that could take months.

A prime minister facing such police recommenda­tions or who has been formally charged is not obliged to resign.

As it became clear police were to issue the recommenda­tions on Tuesday night, Netanyahu gave a televised address to the nation, proclaimin­g his innocence and criticisin­g the police.

Ministers close to him also defended Netanyahu.

Avi Gabbay, leader of the opposition Labour party, said the “Netanyahu era is over” and called on him to step down.

“He is unworthy to continue to be prime minister of Israel. It’s very simple,” Gabbay said in a video interview with the Ynet news site.

Tzipi Livni, part of the main opposition Zionist Union alliance that also includes Labour, criticised what she called a campaign to undermine the police.

But at the same time, a key coalition minister made clear yesterday he was remaining in the government, though he also criticised Netanyahu’s behaviour.

“A prime minister is not meant to be perfect or live an over-modest lifestyle, but he needs to be someone people look at and say: ‘This is how one should act’,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett said in Tel Aviv.

“Taking gifts in large sums over a long period of time is not living up to this standard,” he said, while stressing Netanyahu was innocent until proven guilty and that he would wait for the attorney-general’s decision.

Bennett, who has ambitions to be prime minister, heads the far-right party Jewish Home, which holds eight seats in parliament. Netanyahu’s coalition controls 66 out of 120 seats in total.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, whose centre-right Kulanu party controls 10 seats, will also be among those facing tough questions over whether he will stick with Netanyahu.

Police have been investigat­ing Netanyahu over suspicions that he and his family received expensive gifts from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionair­e James Packer.

The gifts allegedly included pricey cigars, jewellery and champagne.

The total value of the gifts received between 2007 and 2016 is estimated at around one-million shekels (R3.3-million), police said.

Netanyahu’s lawyers said the presents were simply tokens of friendship.

Milchan’s lawyer, Boaz Ben Zur, said the bribery allegation against his client was baseless.

In an e-mailed 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.”

Police have also been probing allegation­s Netanyahu sought a secret deal for favourable coverage with the publisher of top-selling newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

Police recommende­d indicting Milchan and publisher Arnon Moses with bribery as well.

Netanyahu has been questioned seven times by police.

Police said Netanyahu had been suspected of trying to help Milchan receive tax benefits in Israel, assisting him in receiving a visa in the United States and of promoting his business interests.

While an indictment alone would not legally oblige Netanyahu to resign, he would likely face mounting pressure to do so. – AFP-Reuters


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