Israeli opposition leaders have called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step down as the embattled premier’s allies rallied to his defence following police recommendations that he be charged with bribery and breach of trust in two corruption cases.
The police announcement late on Tuesday that Mr Netanyahu accepted around one million shekels (£200,000) in gifts from two billionaires dealt the prime minister an embarrassing blow after years of investigations, but did not appear to immediately rattle his lengthy rule as reaction largely fell along partisan lines.
Nearly all of Mr Netanyahu’s Cabinet ministers issued statements of support and no coalition partners appeared ready to bolt.
Mr Netanyahu’s coalition whip, David Amsalem, dismissed the recommendations and accused the police of committing “an illegitimate act here to attempt a coup d’etat in Israel”.
Opposition politicians, meanwhile, called on Mr Netanyahu to step down, and urged his coalition allies to abandon his government.
Labour Party leader Avi Gabbay said Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leaders of two of the larger parties in Mr Netanyahu’s coalition, need to choose between supporting the prime minister and upholding the rule of law.
“I think it’s clear here that this government needs to go to elections. It can’t be that this government continues as is,” Mr Gabbay told Israel’s Army Radio
“A prime minister that busies himself with attacking his police and law enforcement is simply attacking himself, attacking the country.”
“There’s really a government culture of corruption,” he added.
The police recommendations now go to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who will review the material before deciding whether to file charges.
Mr Netanyahu can remain in office during that process, which is expected to drag on for months.
Both Mr Kahlon and Mr Bennett said they will await Mr Mandelblit’s decision.
On Tuesday night, Mr Netanyahu accused police of being on a witch hunt and vowed to remain in office and even seek re-election.
“I will continue to lead the state of Israel responsibly and loyally as long as you, the citizens of Israel, choose me to lead you,” he said in a televised address.
“I am sure that the truth will come to light. And I am sure that also in the next election that will take place on time I will win your trust again, with God’s help.”
The police recommendations marked a dramatic ending to a more than a year-long investigation into allegations that Mr Netanyahu accepted gifts from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer, and suspicions that he offered to give preferential treatment to a newspaper publisher in exchange for favourable coverage.
The police statement said their investigation had found sufficient evidence to indict Mr Netanyahu in the first case, known as File 1000, for accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust.
It said he had accepted gifts valued at 750,000 shekels (£153,150) from Mr Milchan, and 250,000 shekels (£51,000) from Mr Packer. The gifts from Mr Milchan reportedly included expensive cigars and champagne.
Police said that, in return, Mr Netanyahu had operated on Mr Milchan’s behalf on US visa matters, legislated a tax break and connected him with an Indian businessman.
It said he also helped Mr Milchan, an Israeli producer whose credits include Pretty Woman, 12 Years A Slave and JFK, in the Israeli media market.
In news that sent shockwaves through the political system, it emerged that Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition Yesh Atid party, had given evidence about Mr Netanyahu’s efforts to benefit Mr Milchan that he saw during his term as finance minister.
Key members of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud Party pointed to this as proof that the investigation was politically motivated and whip Mr Amsalem angrily called Mr Lapid a “snitch”.
Mr Lapid said that, as a law-abiding citizen, he gave a short testimony upon request of the police and he called on Mr Netanyahu to resign.
“Someone with such serious accusations against them, many of which he does not even deny, cannot continue to serve as prime minister with responsibility for the security and well-being of Israel’s citizens,” Mr Lapid said.
During similar circumstances a decade ago, Mr Netanyahu, as opposition leader, urged then-prime minister Ehud Olmert to resign during a police investigation, saying a leader “sunk up to his neck in interrogations” could not govern properly.
But Mr Netanyahu remained defiant. His lawyer, Amit Hadad, told Israel Radio on Wednesday that the police’s claims against his client were false.
“He didn’t receive bribes at all. Not in a single day, not in a year, not at all,” Mr Hadad said. “The prime minister never acted in Milchan’s benefit on any issue, except for one, that of the visa.”
Mr Netanyahu said he did so because Mr Milchan had done much for Israel and noted that the late Shimon Peres had also been close to Mr Milchan.
In the second case, known as File 2000, Mr Netanyahu was reportedly recorded asking Arnon Mozes, publisher of the Yediot Ahronot daily, for positive coverage in exchange for promoting legislation that would weaken a free newspaper that had cut into Yediot’s business.
Police said there was sufficient evidence to charge bothMr Milchan and Mr Mozes with bribery.
Channel 10 TV read a statement that it said came from Mr Milchan’s “defence team” saying the bribery charge would not stand.
It said his relationship with Mr Netanyahu went back to the early 2000s, before he became prime minister, and that the men and their families were friends.
There was no immediate comment from Mr Packer or Mr Mozes.