By DOV LIPMAN
(JNS.org) The attorney general’s announcement on Thursday night, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being indicted for bribery and breach of trust led to strong reactions from all sides of the political spectrum.
Netanyahu called the indictment an “attempted coup” and called for an investigation of the investigators who he said were trying to topple him via the charges. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said that there is no coup, but rather a prime minister who is “trying to fortify himself in power” and many on the left urged Netanyahu to resign.
The Blue and White Party was quick to spread a video from 2008 showing then opposition leader Netanyahu saying that “a prime minister who is sunk until his neck in investigations has no moral and public mandate to make significant decisions for the state of Israel.”
Yet in the face of criminal indictments, many from within Netanyahu’s Likud Party and other key leaders in his right-wing bloc, rallied around the prime minister, likely giving the embattled Israeli leader the political cover needed to fight the charges and remain in office.
Likud Justice Minister Amir Ohana, whose ministry is prosecuting Netanyahu, told JNS that he is “proud to stand to the side of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
“The prime minister is not guilty. He isn’t guilty because that’s what the law says and because that is how our judicial system works. A person’s guilt in the State of Israel must be proven in court. Not in tv studios, not in social media, and not even in the prosecutor’s offices.”
Ohana added that “I have seen many indictments collapse in my professional life. There is a long list of public figures who had to deal with indictments, and they were exonerated in court.”
Likud Tourism Minister Yariv Levin went even further, saying that the files against the prime minister should not have been opened to begin with.
“If anything,” Levin said, “We are talking about ethical issues. But they are not criminal. The entire process has been invalid from the beginning.”
Other members of Likud issued similar statements, focusing on Netanyahu’s years of dedication to the success of the state, with the message that Netanyahu should not be judged until he has his day in the court.
Netanyahu was also backed by others on the right, who have had an up and down relationship with the prime minister over the years.
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett of the New Right Party tweeted that “this is a painful night for the nation of Israel. Many believe that this should not be happening to Prime Minister Netanyahu, a man who dedicated his entire life to the State of Israel. For us. On this night it’s important to remember his many merits. He is the prime minister of Israel and deserves to be presumed innocent.”
New Right MK and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked tweeted similarly that “All people have the presumption of innocence and that applies to Prime Minister Netanyahu as well.”
The Shas Party also backed Netanyahu, saying in a statement: “We support and give strength to the hands of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a man with great merits for what he has done for the security and building of Israel. Mr. Prime Minister, we believe and are sure that your innocence will be proven and that justice will come to light. Be strong and mighty and do not be afraid.”
Even Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, who has refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition, echoed this reality that the prime minister is innocent until proven guilty.
Despite the support within his party and political bloc, there are emerging calls for Likud to hold a party primary ahead of an expected third election within the past year.
Likud MK Michal Shir called for primaries for chairman of the party and said that she would support her mentor and Netanyahu rival MK Gideon Saar, who has said that he would run against Netanyahu in primaries.
‘Not worth of leading Israel’
While Netanyahu’s supporters remained firm, several leaders of Blue and White as well as others on the left urged the Israeli leader to step down, arguing that he cannot govern effectively while facing criminal charges.
Blue and White MK and former Likud Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told JNS that it was time for Netanyahu to resign.
“It is [a] sad time for Israel. We expect our leader to be an example of how one should behave. A person who has been indicted on these charges is not worthy of leading Israel. He is not able to serve as an example for all boys and girls in the state and he is not worthy of sitting in the prime minister’s chair.”
Similarly, Blue and White MK Yair Lapid said, “The prime minister cannot deal with bombing Syria at night and then the next morning go to court to debate (state witness) Nir Chefetz.”
Labor Chairman Amir Peretz took the calls for Netanyahu to resign a step further and said that he his party will turn to Israel’s Supreme Court to require Netanyahu to step down as prime minister while he addresses his legal issues.
Peretz explained that “since we are dealing with a prime minister during a transitional government who did not receive the support of the people to be prime minister now,” the law allowing a prime minister to continue serving under indictment doesn’t apply here.
With both sides of the political spectrum lining up either for or against Netanyahu, it remains clear that the political paralysis that Israel has faced over the past year will likely continue as the prospects of a unity government seem dimmer.
Blue and White faction chairman MK Avi Nissenkorn announced that in light of the indictment and the fact that the mandate to form a government has been handed to the Knesset, he will go around the Knesset trying to get 61 signatures supporting Benny Gantz for prime minister.
This will be no easy feat since Blue and White, Labor, and Democratic Union who have already announced their support for Gantz equal just 44 seats. Time will tell whether any member of Netanyahu’s 55-seat right wing/religious bloc will support such an effort due to the prime minister’s legal situation.