With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing increasing pressure as police appear close to recommending indictment in two corruption investigations against him, several Likud ministers came to his defense Sunday morning, but most chose to stay out of the fray.
Ari Harow, a former key associate of the prime minister, signed a deal on Friday to turn state’s witness, a day after police explicitly said for the first time that the investigations involving Netanyahu revolve around “bribery, fraud and breach of trust.”
In the most vehement defense of the prime minister of any from his own party, Culture Minister Miri Regev, a long-time Netanyahu ally, gave impassioned interviews to several Hebrew radio stations, dismissing the allegations as “a media lynching.”
Repeating parts of a Facebook post she published Saturday night saying Netanyahu was not worried about the developments, Regev said Sunday that she had “100 percent trust” that the prime minister was innocent.
“The media and parts of the opposition have been trying to bring down the prime minister for 20 years,” Regev told Army Radio. “It’s the same now with these half-truths about the latest corruption. They won’t succeed.”
However, most Likud ministers declined to go on record Sunday to speak about the investigations.
Last month, as police made public that several figures close to Netanyahu had become entangled in two other corruption investigations, the prime minister summoned key allies Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Environment Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin and Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis, along with Regev, for an emergency meeting to discuss media strategy in response.
On Sunday, they all — with the exception of Regev — kept their silence on the latest developments and declined requests from The Times of Israel to comment.
Three other Likud ministers, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, expressed varying degrees of support over the weekend.
On Friday, Hebrew media reported that police would recommend filing indictments against Netanyahu in two cases — Case 1000 and Case 2000 — as the investigations appear to be strengthened by “significant material” provided by Harow, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff.
A police recommendation does not carry legal weight. It is for state prosecutors to decide whether to press charges.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife Sara are suspected of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, most notably hundreds of thousands of shekels’ worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan.
Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister hobble a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, through Knesset legislation in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
Some 2,000 people protested near the Petah Tikva home of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Saturday night, calling on him to bring indictments against Netanyahu. Nearby, some 100 Likud supporters held a counter-demonstration, which was organized by coalition chairman David Bitan as a show of support for Netanyahu and attended by Kara and Likud MK Nava Boker.
Speaking to Israel Radio, Regev said that the prime minister should not step down even if charges are brought against him.
“When will they [the media] learn that the government is only replaced at the ballot box, not in the media or in an attempt to pressure the attorney general and the legal authorities,” she said. “I call on the prime minister to continue. Even in the case of an indictment I will recommend and ask the prime minister not to step down.”
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has said that the law does not require a prime minister to step down unless convicted of a crime carrying moral turpitude. Ministers have to step down if indicted, but not prime ministers, she said — an opinion not universally accepted by legal experts.
Shaked, whose Jewish Home party sits in the coalition, told Channel 2 that she was opposed to bringing down the government, but there were ethical implications if Netanyahu was indicted.
“If we arrive at a situation in which an indictment is served, the coalition parties will sit down and consider what to do,” she said.
Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert stepped down in 2009 ahead of being indicted on graft charges.
Katz, a powerful influence within the Likud party who has at times clashed with Netanyahu, also backed the prime minister in a Facebook post Sunday, but stopped short of Regev’s assertion that the prime minister would be proved innocent.
“The prime minister should be allowed to fulfill his duties according to the mandate he was given from the public,” Katz wrote. “In a democratic country, you don’t remove a prime minister over protests or incomplete investigations.”
Speaking to Army Radio in a somewhat lukewarm defense of the prime minister, Hanegbi declined to comment on whether Netanyahu should step down if indicted, saying he didn’t think there would be any charges before before the next election, currently set for late 2019.
According to “senior Likud sources” quoted in Yedioth on Sunday, “if an indictment is presented against the prime minister, we won’t allow him to continue in the position.”
In a Friday evening video posted hours after the deal with Harrow was announced, Netanyahu said the investigations against him were “background noise” and that he was focused on working on behalf of Israeli citizens.
Netanyahu did not mention the legal troubles during public comments at the start of his cabinet meeting Sunday.