JERUSALEM — Fighting back against new allegations of corruption from Israeli police and calls for his resignation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Wednesday assailed investigators’ findings as “full of holes, like Swiss cheese,” and vowed to serve to the end of his term.
After a yearlong graft inquiry, police recommended late Tuesday that Netanyahu face prosecution on bribery, fraud, and breach-of-trust charges. They said there was evidence he had accepted nearly $300,000 in gifts in exchange for official actions benefiting his patrons, and had back-room dealings with the publisher of a leading newspaper to ensure more favorable coverage.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu coolly hit back at the police, at a critical witness against him, and against political opponents and critics demanding that he resign or at least step aside while he is under investigation.
“The coalition is stable, and no one, me or anyone else, has plans to go to elections,” he said. “We will continue to work together with you for the citizens of the state of Israel, until the end of our term.”
“I read the recommendations report,” he continued. “I can say this is a slanted document, extreme, full of holes, like Swiss cheese, and holds no water.”
The prime minister, echoed by fellow members of Likud, his right-wing party, also seized on the revelation that an important witness against him was a rival for his job — Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party — to try to discredit the findings of the police investigation.
Lapid, who has been gaining strength in the polls, told investigators that, while finance minister in a previous coalition, he had opposed an effort by Netanyahu to enhance a tax benefit that would have benefited an Israeli movie producer. Police said that Netanyahu’s tax effort was in exchange for lavish gifts from the producer, Arnon Milchan.
“You are a lousy snitch,” the head of Netanyahu’s coalition, David Ansalem, called Lapid. “Aren’t you ashamed?”
Netanyahu’s critics, in the political opposition and across much of the Israeli news media, demanded that he resign or at least step aside until he is cleared by declaring himself incapacitated.
“The state is more important than its prime minister,” wrote respected columnist Nahum Barnea. “That is what David Ben-Gurion, the greatest of all, was told in the twilight of his term, and that is what needs to be said to Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Netanyahu’s term expires in late 2019.
As a legal matter, the case now goes to state prosecutors and the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, a onetime Netanyahu aide, who will decide whether to file formal charges. If Netanyahu is indicted, it would be a first for a sitting prime minister in Israel. Getting to that point, which would require a hearing at which Netanyahu’s lawyers could argue against indictment, could easily take months.
As a political matter, however, Netanyahu’s right-leaning governing coalition holds just 66 of 120 seats in Parliament, so any cracks in solidarity could quickly prove fatal.
But by midday Wednesday, three crucial partners had indicated that they would stay by Netanyahu’s side for the moment. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, whose center-right Kulanu party holds 10 seats, signaled late Tuesday that he would not make any decisions before the attorney general’s decision on an indictment.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party has five seats, alluded Wednesday to his own battles against corruption charges, recalling how he was forced to resign as foreign minister after being indicted in 2012, but won acquittal and resumed his post a year later.
“The main difference here is that this could not exist with a prime minister,” Lieberman said. “This is why until a prime minister is convicted at court, he can continue.”
Other members of Likud, Netanyahu’s party, and the wider coalition adopted a similar stance.
On Wednesday, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads the right-wing Jewish Home party, which has eight seats, said that replacing the government “should be done at the voting station.”
But Bennett allowed that the police recommendations were “harsh” and called into question the prime minister’s ability “to be a leader and role model for the citizens of Israel.”
“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,’” he said. “Taking gifts in large sums over a long period of time is not living up to this standard.”
Speaking in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu did not dispute that he had accepted gifts from Milchan, the Hollywood producer, and James Packer, an Australian billionaire, but he accused police of inflating their value in order to reach what he called “a magic number,” the figure of 1 million shekels, or about $283,000.
While police portrayed his connection to Israeli-born Milchan as “a bribery relationship,” Netanyahu insisted they were longtime friends. And he said investigators had ignored two instances, involving an automotive company and a television channel, in which his actions had been adverse to Milchan’s business interests.
“How could I on the one hand be acting in Milchan’s favor and on the other against him?” Netanyahu asked.