Following police report, Netanyahu's government still stable

Key political leaders back Netanyahu until attorney general has made decision.

ByABC News
February 14, 2018, 3:04 PM

— -- The morning after Israeli police recommended charging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in two corruption cases, he was on the defense. Speaking at a local governance conference in Tel Aviv, the embattled prime minister kept his fight in the public eye, continuing an onslaught on the police and their integrity.

"After I read the recommendations report. I can say it is biased, extreme, full of holes, like Swiss cheese, it doesn't hold water," he said Wednesday morning. "I am confident, as I have always been confident and nothing here has changed -- that the truth will come to light and nothing will come of this."

Tuesday night, Israeli police announced that they had "sufficient evidence" against the prime minister in two cases "for the offense of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust."

The first case alleges that Netanyahu accepted gifts from wealthy patrons in return for advancing their interests. In the second, Netanyahu is accused of striking a deal with Israel's second largest newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, to provide him with positive coverage in return for damaging the reputation of rival paper, Israel Hayom.

The first case names two wealthy businessmen, including big time Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and an Australian businessman. Police said they found sufficient evidence to charge Milchan, who is behind films including "Fight Club" and "The Revenant," for accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust. With respect to the businessman, the police only named fraud and breach of trust.

Milchan did not respond to ABC News' requests for comment. His lawyer told an Israeli TV station that the relationship between the two was a longstanding friendship between the two families.

The police now pass all of the evidence to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a former Netanyahu aide, and appointed by the prime minister. The Attorney General will then spend weeks, possibly months, sifting through evidence before he alone decides whether to indict Netanyahu.

During this process, the prime minister has no legal obligation to step down; his more pressing problem is a political one.

"I want to reassure you," he told Wednesday's audience in Tel Aviv. "The coalition is stable, no one, not myself, not anyone else, plans to hold elections, we will continue to work together with you for the people of Israel until the end of the term."

An indictment would bring serious political pressure on Netanyahu to step down. But today, key players in his coalition government said they wouldn't make any decisions based on the police recommendations alone.

Early Wednesday, Netanyahu's arch rival, Education Minister Naftali Bennett came out offering his support. Bennett is the leader of the far right Jewish Home Party, and a member of Netanyahu's coalition government.

Bennett urged all parties "to act in a restrained, responsible and civil manner."

"We are a state of law, and Prime Minister Netanyahu is still presumed innocent," Bennett said. "I believe that all of us share this hope for the Prime Minister and for all of us that he will come up clean at the end of process."

However, he added: "A prime minister doesn't have to be perfect or be ascetic. But his behavior does have to set an example. Unfortunately, accepting gifts in large sums over a long period of time is not living up to this standard."

Netanyahu's Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon also indicated he wouldn't rush to dissolve the coalition until after the attorney general had made a decision.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, said that he should stay in office if not convicted. “Truly, right now we are operating in a very synchronized way,” he said.

For the moment, that leaves Netanyahu, who served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and from 2009 through the pesent, on solid political footing.

If Netanyahu remains in power until July, 2019, he will become Israel's longest serving prime minister. And this isn't his first time facing the threat of indictment. Police have twice recommended charges in the past, and prosecutors have twice declined to bring charges.

In 1997, prosecutors ignored the police's recommendation, choosing not to charge him over an influence-peddling scandal related to political appointments. At the time, then Attorney General Eliakim Rubinstein "it was a very difficult decision for us to reach, in fact one of the most difficult we have ever had to reach."

Three years later, police recommended charging both Netanyahu and his wife Sara with stealing silverware and carpets among other things from the prime minister’s residence when they moved out, but charges were never brought.

For now, Netanyahu and the rest of Israel waits for the Attorney General's decision. His very legacy hangs in the balance, as does the fate of the Israeli government.

Jordana Miller contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Alexandra Faul contributed reporting from New York.

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