Bennett chides PM, but says he won’t bolt coalition until AG decides on charges
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Liberman, Deri and Kahlon also indicate government is stable

Bennett chides PM, but says he won’t bolt coalition until AG decides on charges

Education minister says Netanyahu ‘not living up to the standard’ expected of a leader, but is ‘still presumed innocent’

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Wednesday that his Jewish Home party would remain in the ruling coalition despite the “unpleasant” police recommendations against Benjamin Netanyahu, though he criticized the prime minister and hinted that an indictment could prompt him to pull out.

“We are a country of laws, and Prime Minister Netanyahu is still presumed innocent. Therefore, I have decided to wait for the decision of the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit,” said Bennett, in his first official comment on the police recommendations announced Tuesday. “I trust the integrity and strength of the attorney general and his team.”

While chiding the prime minister for “not living up to the standard” expected of a leader, Bennett said he did not question Netanyahu’s motives in governing the country.

“When he stood here, minutes ago, and said he made decisions from the right motives, I believe him,” said the minister at the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel conference. “Some claim the prime minister cannot manage the country under the stress of investigations, but I do not see this,” he continued, describing the coalition as a “good government.”

Addressing the same forum minutes earlier, Netanyahu reiterated that he had no intention of resigning following the police call for his indictment, which is not legally binding.

“I can reassure you that the coalition is stable,” Netanyahu said. “Neither I nor anyone else has plans for elections. We’re going to continue to work together for the good of Israeli citizens until the end of the term.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who was also at the conference, likewise advised against jumping to conclusions in the wake of the police report.

“Everyone is entitled to presumption of innocence, even the prime minister,” said the leader of the Yisrael Beytenu coalition party. “Only one body is allowed to decide who is guilty and who is innocent — the courts, not the press.”

Liberman added that “without a doubt” Netanyahu can continue to prime minister, and warned that “otherwise it’s a coup” to bring down the government.

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who is also being investigated on separate corruption charges, also signaled his coalition Shas party would remain in the government.

“This government will live out its days, please God,” said the Shas party leader at the event.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the Muni Expo 2018 conference at the Tel Aviv Convention Center on February 14, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Liberman, Bennett, and Deri were the latest political allies to confirm they were in no hurry to dissolve the ruling coalition after police recommended indicting the premier on corruption charges.

“The law states that only the attorney general can make decisions regarding filing or not filing an indictment,” Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who leads the Kulanu party, wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday night.

Addressing the heated responses to the investigation across the political spectrum, Kahlon called “on everyone — on the left and the right — to stop attacking the police and the legal system,” which he said must be allowed to operate “in an orderly, professional and levelheaded manner.”

The police recommendations will now be handed over to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who will have to decide whether to indict Netanyahu on any or all of the suggested charges.

The process could last many months, as the recommendations must first be examined by State Prosecution teams and then by State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, before being handed to Mandelblit.

If Mandelblit leans toward indicting the premier, Netanyahu still has the right to a hearing before any final decision is made, which could prolong the process by several months more before a potential indictment is filed.

The main opposition party, the Zionist Union, said Tuesday that Netanyahu should resign immediately or be forced out by his coalition partners.

“The police recommendations are clear, tough and decisive,” it said in a statement. “After nine years of Netanyahu, the public deserves a new leadership and a clean, honest prime minister.”

Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay predicted “the end of the Netanyahu era.”

Zionist Union party Avi Gabbay seen during a faction meeting at the Israeli parliament on February 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The recommendations include indictments for bribery in both Case 1000 and Case 2000, as they have been dubbed.

Police said that in Case 1000, they have concluded “that there is sufficient evidence against the prime minister on suspicions of the offense of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust regarding his connection with businessman Arnon Milchan and fraud and breach of trust in connection with the Australian businessman James Packer.”

In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are alleged to have received illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, including some NIS 750,000 ($212,000) worth of cigars, champagne, jewelry and clothing from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and some NIS 250,000 ($70,000) worth of gifts from Milchan’s business partner James Packer.

In Case 2000, police are recommending prosecuting Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in a suspected illicit quid-pro-quo deal with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

In addition to charging Netanyahu, police also recommended indicting Milchan and Mozes, saying that “there is sufficient evidence that suspicions of bribery were committed” by all three.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks at a meeting in the Knesset on December 25, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

As the recommendations and detailed allegations were published, new bombshell reports said the ostensible key witness against the prime minister in one of the cases is his political rival, former finance minister Yair Lapid.

Lapid reportedly provided evidence that the prime minister pushed to extend a law that gave his benefactors millions of dollars in tax breaks.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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