In a revelation Wednesday that shook the foundations of the Israeli government, Israeli police have recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted for fraud and breach of trust in his failed effort to appoint a political crony as attorney general last January.
The police recommendation, leaked to Israeli television Wednesday and confirmed by the police minister and Netanyahu’s private lawyer, is being considered by the state attorney’s office. The attorney general’s office is to decide by Monday whether to act on the recommendation.
If Netanyahu is indicted, it is likely, but not certain, that he would step down and call elections, analysts said. Even if the police recommendation is rejected, an appeal to the high court by Netanyahu’s opponents could lead to political pressure for elections.
“My guess is that the government cannot go on ruling like this no matter what happens to this recommendation,” said Yoel Esteron, managing editor of Haaretz daily newspaper. “Something has to happen. But there is a chance that Netanyahu will launch a political counter-attack and survive.”
Netanyahu, whose hawkish approach to accords with the Palestinians has slowed the peace process and angered the Clinton administration, was elected with a bare 30,000-vote majority last May over Shimon Peres. Current opinion polls reflecting voter preference show him less popular than Labor party leader Ehud Barak by 10 points but with 30 percent of Israelis uncommitted.
News of the police recommendation came as U.S. peace talks coordinator Dennis Ross was here trying to persuade Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to resume negotiations broken when Netanyahu started building a controversial Jewish neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem.
The current scandal began three months ago when Israel’s Channel One television station reported that Netanyahu appointed a political crony, Roni Bar-On, as attorney general at the insistence of religious party leader Aryeh Deri. At the time of the appointment, Deri was under indictment for public corruption.
The alleged deal was that Bar-On would give Deri a favorable plea bargain, allowing him to continue his political career. In return, Deri’s religious Shas party would give Netanyahu the decisive votes he needed in his cabinet for a military redeployment in the West Bank town of Hebron. With the decisive support of Shas, the redeployment was approved in January.
Bar-On, a Likud party activist in Jerusalem and a criminal lawyer, was appointed but stepped down a day later amid a chorus of complaints within the Likud government itself that he was unqualified for the post.
Elyakim Rubinstein, a much-respected judge and former government lawyer, was appointed in his stead. It is now up to Rubinstein and State Attorney Edna Arbel to decide whether the police recommendation should be accepted. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.
The police report is said to recommend the indictments of Justice Minister Tsahi Hanegbi and top aide Avigdor Lieberman, as well as of Aryeh Deri. Hanegbi reportedly would be charged with breach of trust for allegedly misleading the cabinet about Bar-On’s qualifications, Lieberman with breach of trust for his alleged role in relaying Deri’s threats to Netanyahu, and Deri for alleged blackmail.
The original charges against Deri of fraud and accepting bribes are pending.
Police Chief Assaf Hefetz said the indictment recommendation against Netanyahu is less severe than that against the other three. Netanyahu’s lawyer, Yaacov Weinroth, said on television Wednesday that he understood the recommendation against the prime minister came with reservations.
He said that he had been told by the state attorney that the recommendation to indict was accompanied by a suggestion that it be subject to a summary interrogation of Netanyahu, who was interrogated once for several hours in the probe. Weinroth said he would try to convince the state attorney that the charges were baseless.
The mood within Likud circles Wednesday was one of devastation with senior officials declining to comment publicly. The opposition Labor party, by contrast, was loudly proclaiming that Netanyahu must step down.
In recent days, there had been talk of Labor joining Likud in a coalition government but now Labor leaders say that idea has been put aside until the scandal runs its course.
The legal requirements surrounding a Netanyahu resignation are somewhat fuzzy since he is the first prime minister of Israel directly elected by the people rather than as head of a party list.
It is therefore not clear whether, if indicted, he must step down. A 1993 Supreme Court precedent in Israel states that a regular cabinet minister under indictment must step down and some legal commentators say this applies to Netanyahu as well.
“In my legal opinion, this same ruling applies to the prime minister,” asserted Zeev Segal, law professor at Tel Aviv University and legal commentator for Haaretz newspaper. “It is impossible to think that a minister cannot be in office because he is a trustee of the public but a prime minister could.”