Two groups were gearing up to file petitions against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s continued rule Friday, following the attorney general’s explosive Thursday announcement that he will indict the Israeli leader in three corruption cases.
Both the Labor party and the Movement for Quality Government said they would appeal to the High Court of Justice to force the prime minister to step down, with further petitions expected. Though the law technically allows a prime minister to remain in power so long as a final court ruling convicting him has not been given, that law has never actually been tested before — as Netanyahu is the first leader in Israel’s history to face criminal charges while in office — and the courts will likely be compelled to debate the issue.
Several dozen Labor activists demonstrated Friday noon outside Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv calling for Netanyahu’s resignation. The Movement for Quality Government, an organization committed to clean politics and which describes itself as apolitical, said it would hold a large rally on November 30 calling for Netanyahu’s ouster.
Labor said in a statement that it was time for Likud to “have mercy on Israel” and pressure Netanyahu to quit in order to avoid a new election, which the party said would only be held to serve “Netanyahu’s personal legal interests.”
After September’s elections, and failed efforts by Netanyahu and rival Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to muster a majority, the Knesset has three weeks to find a prime ministerial candidate who enjoys the support of 61 MKs. With kingmaker Yisrael Beytenu saying it will not support a narrow government of any kind, and the indictment announcement seemingly killing off any chance of Blue and White agreeing to share power with Netanyahu, a new national poll — the third in less than a year — appears all but inevitable.
The Blue and White party on Friday morning called on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to order Netanyahu to immediately relinquish the four ministerial posts he currently holds. As of today, Netanyahu holds the agriculture, health, social affairs and diaspora affairs portfolios. According to legal precedent, a minister cannot continue to serve under indictment.
Meanwhile, a growing number of right-wing politicians issued statements of support for the embattled leader Friday.
Foreign Minister Israel Katz, a key figure in Likud who had remained silent after the indictment was announced on Thursday, said Friday morning he supported Netanyahu.
“Israel is a state of law and the presumption of innocence is the right of every person, certainly of Prime Minister Netanyahu,” he stated. “So long as there is no legal objection to Netanyahu serving as prime minister he is permitted to remain in his job, and only the public and its representatives in the Knesset will decide democratically who will lead Israel.”
Science Minister Ofir Akunis too said Friday morning that Netanyahu should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. “From my 25-year acquaintance with him, which has known its ups and downs, I give my support to the prime minister and appreciate even more so his contribution over many years to Israel.”
Education Minister Rafi Peretz, whose Jewish Home party backs Netanyahu, praised the prime minister for his “devotion” to Israel and stressed he had yet to be found guilty of wrongdoing.
“At this difficult time I wish to strengthen the prime minister and pray things will be cleared up and justice soon comes to light,” he said.
Peretz did not mention whether he backs immunity for Netanyahu, which has been championed by Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, whose National Union faction is part of an alliance with Jewish Home.
Smotrich himself on Friday called for Netanyahu supporters to take to the streets in protest to stop “a destructive, dangerous legal dictatorship.”
Several of Netanyahu’s political allies quickly closed ranks in his defense on Thursday, backing his claim that police and state prosecutors were attempting a “coup” to remove him from power using false corruption charges.
A number of lawmakers, however, remained silent or waited hours to come out in support of Netanyahu, in the latest sign that his hold over the Likud party may be slipping.
Netanyahu, in an emotional and defiant address, accused prosecutors and justice officials of a “tainted process,” and vowed to “continue to lead Israel… in accordance with the law,” shortly after Mandelblit announced he would charge the premier with criminal wrongdoing in three separate cases against him, including bribery in the far-reaching Bezeq corruption probe.
Despite overseeing the Justice Ministry which issued the charge sheet, Likud’s Amir Ohana indicated that he believed the prime minister was innocent of all charges.
“Benjamin Netanyahu is not a corrupt man,” Ohana said in a statement posted to Twitter. “I’m proud to stand by him at this moment… and completely confident that the test of history will prove it’s the correct side to stand on.”
“We are being tested,” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Netanyahu’s coalition talks negotiator, said in a Facebook post.
“The state of Israel owes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a great debt. Netanyahu has devoted his life to this country and to its defense. The injustice done to him tonight cries out to high heaven,” he declared.
He called on fellow Likud members “to come together. We will keep our ranks united and continue as one to fight for our principles and our truth, and we will win.”
Culture Minister Miri Regev defended Netanyahu’s presumption of innocence and said police and state prosecutors “cannot be immune from criticism and above the law.”
Likud MK Miki Zohar said “millions of people in this country were deeply moved” by Netanyahu’s statement.
Communications Minister David Amsalem, a Netanyahu ally, tweeted simply, “We won’t let the lie win!”
In a statement, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party said that Netanyahu still enjoyed its support. “We believe and trust that your innocence will be proven and justice will prevail,” the statement read, adding that the prime minister should be “strong and courageous.”
The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party on Friday morning also said it backed Netanyahu and wished him success in his legal battles.
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the New Right party, called Thursday evening’s events a “painful night for the people of Israel. Many feel that Prime Minister Netanyahu, a man who has devoted his entire life to Israel, doesn’t deserve what happened tonight. It is important at this time to recall his great contributions.”
Several dozen Netanyahu supporters rallied outside the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem in the evening, facing off against a smaller crowd of people celebrating the charges against the premier and calling for him to resign.
Some party officials criticized Netanyahu, though none would speak on the record.
“We need to understand that the Netanyahu era is over and work toward change,” one senior Likud official told Channel 12, calling for Netanyahu’s ouster as party leader.
If new elections are held, Netanyahu appears set to face a leadership challenge for the first time since 2014, in the form of senior Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar who announced a bid to challenge to Netanyahu earlier this week.
Hebrew media on Thursday night said another unnamed Likud lawmaker was planning to throw their hat in the ring if the party goes to primaries.
Meanwhile opposition parties on Thursday night emphatically called for Netanyahu’s removal, saying he could no longer be trusted to run the country.
Blue and White party leader Gantz said, “There is no coup in Israel, but rather those that have barricaded themselves in power.”
Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid described Netanyahu’s speech as “insanity.”
Democratic Camp leader Nitzan Horowitz insisted that “Netanyahu must go now. For the sake of the citizens of Israel and the state, he cannot stay in power for one more minute. Those who cling to their blind loyalty to him will be remembered as having helped in the most serious corruption yet of Israeli democracy, and of directly hurting the country.”
Labor-Gesher leader Amir Peretz said: “In a democracy we cannot tolerate a prime minister under indictment. The political crisis in Israel is only due to his indictments. If we can prevent Netanyahu from clinging to power, we will be able to prevent a third election in under a year.”
Arab Joint List chief Ayman Odeh, repeatedly labeled along with fellow Arab lawmakers as a “terror supporter” by Netanyahu, said it will take time to “repair the damage he caused with his social misdeeds.”
Mandelblit’s decision marked the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister faces criminal charges, casting a heavy shadow over Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, and his ongoing attempts to remain in power.
The announcement did not include the official filing of an indictment, as the Knesset must first decide on lifting Netanyahu’s procedural immunity, a process that — due to the current political gridlock and the lack of a functioning government — could drag on for months.
Mandelblit, in a rare address to the media announcing his decision, called it “a difficult and sad day” and said his ruling was made “with a heavy heart but also with a whole heart.
“Law enforcement isn’t optional. It’s not a question of politics. It’s a duty incumbent upon us…. We were not swayed by slander from all sides, and acted only to enforce the law,” Mandelblit said, referring to criticism from Netanyahu supporters who have accused prosecutors of conducting a witch hunt to unseat the prime minister.
He called the accusations “dangerous” and said they were “playing with fire. It must stop. I call on everyone, first and foremost the leaders of the state, you must distance yourself from discourse that threatens law enforcement officials. We’re not infallible or above criticism. But we acted without fear or prejudice, for the rule of law.”
Israeli law only requires that a prime minister step down if convicted, but experts have suggested that Netanyahu could have a “problem” if he seeks to stay in office after the formal indictment is filed. Under law and High Court of Justice precedent, ministers other than the prime minister are required to step down in such a situation. There is no clear legal rule regarding the prime minister.
However, Hebrew media reported Thursday that Mandelblit may soon be required to rule on whether Netanyahu, as a person under indictment, was at all eligible to form a new government.
According to the Globes newspaper, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan believes that even if Netanyahu is not legally required to vacate his post, as in the case of a minister under indictment, he cannot begin a new term with the charges hanging over him.