Barring Kulanu, all right-wing parties affirm backing for PM despite legal woes

Netanyahu ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ say premier’s prospective right-wing coalition partners, after attorney general announces intention to indict

Education Minister Naftali Bennett at a press conference in Tel Aviv, February 7, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett at a press conference in Tel Aviv, February 7, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Facing growing legal troubles and the looming prospect of indictment in three graft cases, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a wave of support from his right-wing coalition partners, nearly all of whom vowed to back him for premier despite the allegations.

The statements all came after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced Thursday that he intends to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing, on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery.

All but one of Netanyahu’s current coalition partners — the Kulanu party — publicly backed the prime minister.

The New Right party, led by former Jewish Home leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, said, “We respect the attorney general’s decision, but just as the attorney general himself said he would come to the [pre-indictment] hearing with an open mind, so, too, we will wait [to judge Netanyahu] until after the hearing. The New Right party will ask the president to appoint Netanyahu to form the next coalition.”

The Union of Right Wing Parties, an alliance of far-right political factions, backed Netanyahu as “innocent until proven guilty,” and warned his possible fall could lead to the establishment of a “Palestinian terror state.”

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman speaks at an event in Ganei Tikva, on February 25, 2019. (Flash90)

In a statement, the party said it would still “recommend after the elections that Prime Minister Netanyahu be the candidate to form a strong and stable right-wing government” despite the indictment announcement.

“However,” it added, “in light of past bitter experience, it is now clearer than ever that the Union of Right Wing Parties — the only slate truly committed to the Land of Israel — must be large and strong so that we will not find ourselves the day after the elections with a… government that could lead us to the establishment of a Palestinian terror state.”

Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman also backed Netanyahu.

“In Israel, the only body authorized to rule whether someone is guilty or innocent is a court,” Liberman said in a statement. “The presumption of innocence is assured for anyone, including the prime minister. Therefore, as far as we’re concerned, Netanyahu can run in the Knesset elections like anyone else.”

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party said in a statement it would continue to back Netanyahu for prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri during a plenum session in the Knesset, January 11, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“As we’ve said from the start, Shas will support only Netanyahu for prime minister.” The party said Netanyahu “is the best person to lead the country at this time, and we will support him for prime minister as long as the law permits” him to hold the post.

United Torah Judaism said it viewed Netanyahu as innocent until proven otherwise, and confirmed it would continue supporting him “especially during this sensitive time, as long as the law permits it.”

Only the Kulanu party, led by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, has not yet commented following Mandelblit’s announcement.

Mandelblit’s decision is not final. Netanyahu will have an opportunity to overturn it in a hearing expected to take place in the months following Election Day on April 9. The process could take up to a year.

Prime Minister and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media in Kfar Maccabiah, Ramat Gan, February 21, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The announcement marks the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister has been told he faces criminal charges, and casts a heavy shadow over Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.

Netanyahu will be charged with fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, and fraud, breach of trust and bribery in Case 4000. Despite reported recommendations from the state attorney and police that the prime minister stand trial for bribery in all of the cases, Mandelblit opted for the lesser charge of fraud and breach of trust in two of the affairs.

Thursday’s announcement of the intention to indict the prime minister — who long argued that the decision should be postponed until after the vote so that it would not affect public opinion — places Netanyahu’s legal situation front and center in the campaign.

Finance Minister and head of the Kulanu party Moshe Kahlon attends a press conference of the party in Tel Aviv on February 13, 2019. (Flash90)

The decision to press charges, pending a hearing, in the criminal investigations against Netanyahu could have a game-changing impact on the elections, a Times of Israel poll published earlier Thursday showed. The ruling Likud party could lose both a significant chunk of support, as well as its ability to form a coalition after the vote, the survey, published overnight Wednesday-Thursday, indicated.

In Case 1000, involving accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for favors, Mandelblit said he intends to charge Netanyahu with breach of trust — a somewhat murkily defined offense relating to an official violating the trust the public has placed in him. Milchan is not to be charged.

In Case 2000, involving accusations Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth, Mandelblit will seek to also charge the premier with breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery. The case is said to have been a contentious one in Mandelblit’s office, with many prosecution officials reportedly arguing that Netanyahu should be charged with bribery, while Mandelblit considered not charging the prime minister at all.

In Case 4000, widely seen as the most serious against the premier, Netanyahu is accused of having advanced regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. In that case Mandelblit announced he intends to charge both Netanyahu and Elovitch with bribery.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in all three cases, and has alleged that the investigations against him are a “witch hunt” involving the left, the media and the police relentlessly pressuring a “weak” attorney general.

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