Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid said Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu need not resign over police recommendations he stand trial for corruption offenses including bribery, but must “step aside” for a time in order to fight his legal battles.
He was speaking just days after police recommended charges against the prime minister in two separate graft probes and as law enforcement were reportedly gearing up to interrogate Netanyahu in a third case.
Addressing the Conference of Presidents’ of Major Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, and later at his party’s faction meeting in the Knesset, Lapid proposed a scenario whereby Netanayahu would take a temporary leave of absence until the allegations are “resolved.”
“We don’t even have to go to elections; they can put in somebody as temporary prime minister from Likud as has been done before, until this is resolved,” Lapid told the US Jewish community leaders.
“Being the prime minister of Israel is an incredibly difficult job, maybe the second hardest in the world after the American president, and you need to be a hundred percent in it. We need a prime minister who is focused on this,” the opposition party leader added.
“He cannot continue to lead a complicated country like this,” he told his party’s MKs at the Knesset.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife are alleged to have received illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, most notably the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, totaling NIS 1 million ($282,000). In return, Netanyahu is alleged by police to have intervened on Milchan’s behalf in matters relating to legislation, business dealings, and visa arrangements.
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 weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
On Sunday, Hebrew media reports said that Netanyahu, in the investigation dubbed Case 4000, is suspected of furthering a deal under which Shaul Elovitch, owner of the Walla news site and the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq communications company, swayed Walla’s coverage of Netanyahu and his family, in exchange for the Communications Ministry enacting policies potentially worth hundreds of millions of shekels for Elovitch.
While police say they have collected enough evidence to bring Netanyahu to trial in Case 1000 and Case 2000, their recommendations have no legal bearing on the prime minister and do not require him to quit or for new elections to be called. But, as Lapid suggested, he could take a leave of absence, letting someone else run the government while he fights the charges.
“Should the prime minister be temporarily unable to discharge his duties, his place will be filled by the acting prime minister,” states paragraph 16(b) of Basic Law: The Government. If the prime minister is still incapacitated after 100 days, he will be “deemed permanently unable to exercise his office.”
The law is mostly intended for situations in which a prime minister is unable to function for health reasons, such as when Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke in early January 2006 and Ehud Olmert became acting prime minister. But Netanyahu could declare himself “unable to discharge his duties” due to his focus on his legal battles.
If Netanyahu failed to shed his legal difficulties within the first 100 days after taking a leave of absence, the ball would land in President Reuven Rivlin’s court. Just as he did when the government was first formed, he would once again consult with the leaders of the various Knesset factions and task one of them with trying to form a coalition.
Lapid said Netanayhu’s reaction so far to the accusations proves he will be unable to properly run the country during a prolonged legal battle.
“Israel has real problems. An Iranian drone just penetrated our territory, breached our sovereignty. There was a terror attack in Gaza. We have all sorts of economic and domestic problems right now… but the prime minister has mostly been occupied with talking to his lawyers, writing Facebook posts and briefing journalists,” he said to the Conference of Presidents.
“He needs to step aside until this is resolved, he doesn’t even need to resign,” he repeated at the Knesset.
Lapid — a former finance minister under Netanyahu and now his political rival — testified to police that the prime minister tried to push legislation to extend the period for which new immigrants and returning Israelis are exempt from declaring and paying tax on income earned overseas, a move that could have saved billionaire Hollywood producer Milchan millions of dollars.
Since his involvement in the case was revealed last week, Lapid has been accused by Netanyahu allies of conducting a subversive campaign to bring down the government via police investigations. He told Monday’s conference that while he would prefer to beat the prime minster in elections, the allegations against Netanyahu are such that the premier cannot continue to lead.
“In a democracy, the way to change the government is in the polls but I don’t think he can give the country the attention it needs,” he said.
Addressing accusations that he too has enjoyed a close relationship with Milchan over many years, Lapid said that there was “a difference between friendship and corruption.”
“I’ve known Arnon Milchan for 25 years, I worked for him for a few months 22 years ago. I have met him many times. The thing is, the prime minister was accused — and this wasn’t even denied — of getting close to a million shekels in gifts. I don’t even understand that kind of friendship, what kind of friendship it is when you get a million shekels from somebody,” he said.
Speaking at his own faction meeting, Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay rebuked Lapid for meeting with Milchan while serving as finance minister, saying “it shouldn’t have happened.”
“We will uproot the phenomenon of billionaire friends who heap presents on the leadership,” he vowed, referring to both Netanyahu and Lapid.
Gabbay, a former Bezeq telecom CEO, also said the graft case involving the company he formerly headed, Case 4000, caused him “deep sorrow,” but denied involvement.
“The company employees are very dear to me and when I hear about this case and those that preceded it, I feel very deep sorrow for them,” Gabbay said, stressing that the suspicions center on things that took place in 2015-2016, while he had left in 2013.
“I had no influence over the sister companies,” Gabbay said, referring to, among other bodies, the Walla news site. He was aware that Netanyahu and Elovitch “were friends,” he said, but insisted he knew nothing beyond that.
Lapid later hit back at Gabbay, for choosing “the wrong side” as regards his and Netanyahu’s roles in the graft probes.