Fighting back against new allegations of corruption from the Israeli police and calls for his resignation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Wednesday assailed investigators’ findings as “full of holes, like Swiss cheese,” and vowed to serve to the end of his term.
After a yearlong graft inquiry, the police recommended late Tuesday that Mr. Netanyahu face prosecution on bribery, fraud and breach-of-trust charges. They said there was evidence he had accepted nearly $300,000 in gifts in exchange for official actions benefiting his patrons, and had back-room dealings with the publisher of a leading newspaper to ensure more favorable coverage.
On Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu coolly hit back at the police, at a critical witness against him, and against political opponents and critics demanding that he resign or at least step aside while he is under investigation.
“The coalition is stable, and no one, me or anyone else, has plans to go to elections,” he said. “We will continue to work together with you for the citizens of the State of Israel, until the end of our term.”
“I read the recommendations report,” he continued. “I can say this is a slanted document, extreme, full of holes, like Swiss cheese, and holds no water.”
The prime minister, echoed by fellow members of Likud, his right-wing party, also seized on the revelation that an important witness against him was a rival for his job — Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party — to try to discredit the findings of the police investigation.
Mr. Lapid, who has been gaining strength in the polls, told investigators that, while finance minister in a previous coalition, he had opposed an effort by Mr. Netanyahu to enhance a tax benefit that would have benefited an Israeli movie producer. The police said that Mr. Netanyahu’s tax effort was in exchange for lavish gifts from the producer, Arnon Milchan.
“You are a lousy snitch,” the head of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, David Ansalem, called Mr. Lapid. “Aren’t you ashamed?”
Mr. Netanyahu’s critics, in the political opposition and across much of the Israeli news media, demanded that he resign or at least step aside until he is cleared by declaring himself incapacitated.
“The state is more important than its prime minister,” wrote the respected columnist Nahum Barnea. “That is what David Ben-Gurion, the greatest of all, was told in the twilight of his term, and that is what needs to be said to Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s term expires in late 2019.
Many warned that Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to sow doubts about the fairness and professionalism of Israeli law enforcement investigators could do lasting damage to an important democratic institution, whether he survives the scandal or not.
“When Ehud Olmert was forced to leave his post after an indictment was issued, that happened with full public confidence in the law enforcement agencies,” the journalist Ben-Dror Yemini wrote in an op-ed article in Yediot Ahronoth, recalling the last Israeli prime minister to leave office in disgrace. “If Netanyahu is forced to leave his post in the coming number of months, that will happen amid an awful crisis of confidence among his supporters, who aren’t exactly a negligible minority.”
As a legal matter, the case now goes to state prosecutors and the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, a onetime Netanyahu aide, who will decide whether to file formal charges. If Mr. Netanyahu is indicted, it would be a first for a sitting prime minister in Israel. Getting to that point, which would require a hearing at which Mr. Netanyahu’s lawyers could argue against indictment, could easily take months.
As a political matter, however, Mr. Netanyahu’s right-leaning governing coalition holds just 66 of 120 seats in Parliament, so any cracks in solidarity could quickly prove fatal.
But by midday Wednesday, three crucial partners had indicated that they would stay by Mr. Netanyahu’s side for the moment. The finance minister, Moshe Kahlon, whose center-right Kulanu party holds 10 seats, signaled late Tuesday that he would not make any decisions before the attorney general’s decision on an indictment.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party has five seats, alluded on Wednesday to his own battles against corruption charges, recalling how he was forced to resign as foreign minister after being indicted in 2012, but won acquittal and resumed his post a year later.
“The main difference here is that this could not exist with a prime minister,” Mr. Lieberman said. “This is why until a prime minister is convicted at court, he can continue.”
Other members of Likud, Mr. Netanyahu’s party, and the wider coalition adopted a similar stance.
On Wednesday, the education minister, Naftali Bennett, who leads the right-wing Jewish Home party, which has eight seats, said that replacing the government “should be done at the voting station.”
But Mr. Bennet allowed that the police recommendations were “harsh” and called into question the prime minister’s ability “to be a leader and role model for the citizens of Israel.”
“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,’” he said. “Taking gifts in large sums over a long period of time is not living up to this standard.”
Speaking in Tel Aviv, Mr. Netanyahu did not dispute that he had accepted gifts from Mr. Milchan, the Hollywood producer, and James Packer, an Australian billionaire, but he accused the police of inflating their value in order to reach what he called “a magic number,” the figure of 1 million shekels, or about $283,000.
While the police portrayed his connection to the Israeli-born Mr. Milchan as “a bribery relationship,” Mr. Netanyahu insisted they were longtime friends. And he said investigators had ignored two instances, involving an automotive company and a television channel, in which his actions had been adverse to Mr. Milchan’s business interests.
“How could I on the one hand be acting in Milchan’s favor and on the other against him?” Mr. Netanyahu asked.
The emergence of Mr. Lapid as a witness against him, meanwhile, seemed to inspire Mr. Netanyahu to heights of bitterness.
“This is the same Lapid who promised to bring me down at any price,” he said. He said Mr. Lapid was also a close friend of Mr. Milchan’s but had not recused himself from dealings with Mr. Milchan once Mr. Lapid entered the government.
“I am trying to think what would happen if I would do such a thing,” Mr. Netanyahu said, adding: “But here the world is upside down. The moment Lapid says the magic word — ‘Netanyahu’ — the world turns upside down. I get recommendations, and Lapid gets applause.”
For his part, Mr. Lapid said he had merely answered the questions investigators put to him, and said he would rather compete with Mr. Netanyahu for votes. But he said the prime minister needed to show responsibility by stepping down. It would be impossible for him to fulfill his duties, Mr. Lapid said in a video, “while you are spending the majority of your time with lawyers and in responding to the press.”
He added: “You cannot represent us in the world when every foreign leader that you meet knows you have been accused of serious offenses.”
With a major demonstration against Mr. Netanyahu set for Friday at noon in downtown Tel Aviv, it seemed entirely too soon to handicap his chances of riding out the scandal.
“Within a short time, when the polls are published,” wrote Sima Kadmon in Yediot Ahronoth, “when the demonstrations on the streets expand and with them the prevalence of the ‘fed up with corruption’ signs, we will see what the position of Kahlon, Bennett and Lieberman will be, and how many seats they will be willing to risk in order to protect the prime minister.”
Source: New York Times