Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon on Saturday night denied a TV report that he was checking into the possibility of forming a new coalition, without Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, as the prime minister fights corruption allegations.
Channel 2 news said Kahlon, who heads the center-right Kulanu party, had “begun contacts” with Zionist Union opposition leader Isaac Herzog “and others” about forming an alternative government, which he or Herzog would head. It said he also intended to check with President Reuven Rivlin over how the president would act if Netanyahu had to step down — whether Rivlin would invite others to try to form a majority coalition, or would call new elections.
Kahlon said the report was false, however, and insisted he had not met with either Herzog or Rivlin over the matter. Herzog’s office also denied the story.
The Channel 2 report also speculated that centrist Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, riding high in the polls, would be likely to prefer new elections to a reconstituted coalition without the Likud party.
The political speculation came as Netanyahu faces an intensifying corruption allegation which saw him questioned twice at length, under caution, in the past few days.
He is suspected of taking illicit gifts from two businessmen, and of corruption relating to a second affair on which police have offered few details. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.
Israel’s former foreign minister Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) said earlier Saturday that Netanyahu, “living at the expense of others,” no longer had “the moral right” to serve as prime minister. Former Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich said that the prime minister’s acceptance of gifts from his “sugar daddy,” Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, was “corruption exemplified.”
Netanyahu’s former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon said on Saturday night, “It’s about time Israel had a prime minister who didn’t need investigating.” Corruption in Israel, Ya’alon added, “causes me more sleepless nights than the (threat of an) Iranian bomb.”
In the last few days, a stream of details have emerged of gifts and benefits provided by Milchan to the Netanyahus.
Netanyahu was questioned by police under caution on Thursday evening for five hours — the second such session in four days. Among the issues reportedly discussed was his alleged acceptance of cigars worth hundreds of thousands of shekels from Milchan, and his wife Sara’s acceptance of pink champagne worth hundreds of shekels a bottle.
A Channel 2 report said Friday that the cigar supplies were “a veritable airlift.” Netanyahu’s lawyer said earlier Friday that there was nothing criminal in one good friend giving cigars to another.
The Channel 2 report stated that Milchan’s gifts to Netanyahu began when he was opposition leader, and were not limited to cigars. There were suits, and meals cooked by private chefs, it said, and jewelry for Mrs. Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is also facing a second corruption probe, details of which remain largely undisclosed, which will be publicly damaging but is legally ambiguous, sources involved in the investigation told the country’s major broadcasters Friday.
A source told Channel 2 news that this second case, reportedly known as Case 2,000, would cause “a public storm” and “public anger” but would not necessarily lead to an indictment. It involved an Israeli businessman, the source said, who had sought to provide benefits to the Israeli leader in return for receiving certain perks.
Channel 10 reported a similar sentiment from investigative officials, with the broadcaster’s reporters being told the case was “juicy” and publicly harmful, but was complex and not straightforward as far as the law was concerned. Channel 10 said the businessman was a “central” Israeli figure who wanted Netanyahu to “take a certain decision,” and would reward him in turn, and that it was not clear whether Netanyahu had taken the decision.
Further witnesses are to be questioned in the next few days over the allegations against Netanyahu, and the attorney general will then decide whether to authorize a third round of questioning of Netanyahu, the TV reports said.
Netanyahu’s lawyer Yaakov Weinroth on Friday rejected the notion that there was anything criminal in the prime minister’s actions and said he had nothing to fear from the second case either.
Weinroth, who consulted with his client at the end of Thursday’s questioning, said “there is nothing to the allegations” as regards Milchan’s gifts. “Any reasonable person knows that there is nothing remotely criminal involved when a close friend gives his friend a gift of cigars.”
As for the second case, Weinroth said that he has heard Netanyahu’s answers and “I was and I remain calm… We’re not talking about money, we’re not talking about loans, we’re not talking about anything that constitutes a crime.” It will become clear to all, he added, that there is “no suspicion, no trace, of a criminal offense in all of this.”