Jerusalem (AFP) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected calls to step down Wednesday after police recommended his indictment for corruption, the biggest challenge yet to the right-wing premier’s long tenure in power.
Netanyahu again came out swinging on Wednesday morning, harshly criticising the police investigation against him while making clear he has no intention of resigning.
His governing coalition, seen as the most right-wing in Israeli history, appears firm for now, but reactions from key members in the coming days will be watched closely for signs of fissures.
“I can reassure you that the coalition is stable,” Netanyahu said at an event in Tel Aviv.
“Neither me 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.”
Netanyahu, prime minister for a total of nearly 12 years, also harshly denounced the police recommendations against him as “full of holes, like Swiss cheese.”
He said the police report “misleads” and is “contrary to the truth and logic.”
Police recommended on Tuesday that he be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of public trust after a long-running investigation.
The attorney general must now decide how to move forward with the case, a process that could take months.
A prime minister facing such police recommendations or who has been formally charged is not obliged to resign.
As it became clear police were to issue the recommendations on Tuesday night, Netanyahu gave a televised address to the nation, proclaiming his innocence and criticising the police.
Ministers close to him also defended Netanyahu.
– ‘Undermine the police’ –
Avi Gabbay, leader of the opposition Labour party, said the “Netanyahu era is over” and called on him to step down.
“He is unworthy to continue to be prime minister of Israel. It’s very simple,” Gabbay said in a video interview with the Ynet news site.
Tzipi Livni, part of the main opposition Zionist Union alliance that also includes Labour, criticised what she called a campaign to undermine the police.
But at the same time, a key coalition minister made clear on Wednesday he was remaining in the government, though he also criticised Netanyahu’s behaviour.
“A prime minister is not meant to be perfect or live an over-modest lifestyle, but he needs to be someone people look at and say: ‘This is how one should act’,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett said in a speech in Tel Aviv.
“Taking gifts in large sums over a long period of time is not living up to this standard,” he added, while stressing Netanyahu was innocent until proven guilty and that he would wait for the attorney general’s decision.
Bennett, who has ambitions to be prime minister, heads the far-right party Jewish Home, which holds eight seats in parliament.
Netanyahu’s coalition controls 66 out of 120 seats in total.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, whose centre-right Kulanu party controls 10 seats, will also be among those facing tough questions over whether he will stick with Netanyahu.
Police have been investigating Netanyahu over suspicions that he and his family received expensive gifts from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.
The gifts allegedly included pricey cigars, jewellery and champagne.
The total value of the gifts received between 2007 and 2016 is estimated at around one million shekels (229,000 euros, $283,000), according to police.
They have also been probing allegations Netanyahu sought a secret deal for favourable coverage with the publisher of top-selling newspaper Yediot Aharonot.
Police recommended indicting Milchan and the publisher, Arnon Moses, with bribery as well.
– Quid pro quo? –
The 68-year-old premier has been questioned seven times by police over the allegations and has called the investigation an attempt by political opponents to force him from office.
Police said Netanyahu had been suspected of trying to help Milchan receive tax benefits in Israel, of assisting him in receiving a visa in the United States and of promoting his business interests.
Milchan, who is Israeli, has produced many films, including the blockbuster “Pretty Woman”.
While an indictment alone would not legally oblige Netanyahu to resign, he would likely face mounting pressure to do so. He would be legally forced to step down if he were convicted and all appeals were exhausted.
He has already faced a series of large protests in Tel Aviv over the corruption cases.
Netanyahu’s time as premier is fast approaching Israel’s revered founding father David Ben-Gurion’s 13 years. He first held the office from 1996-1999 before returning to power in 2009.