JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- Israeli police investigators have recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and two top aides be charged in alleged political corruption that could bring down the government.
The move to indict the prime minister in the failed appointment this year of an attorney general was confirmed last night by the nation's police chief, Assaf Hefetz, after it was reported by Israeli television stations.
The appointment by Netanyahu allegedly was part of a deal to win favorable treatment for a political ally, Aryeh Deri, who faced trial on corruption charges.
Hefetz acknowledged that charges against Netanyahu might be difficult to prove. But he added, "there is evidence for bringing an indictment against the prime minister on the charge of fraud and breach of trust."
A decision whether to indict the prime minister rests with Israel's attorney general, Eliakem Rubenstein, and State Attorney Edna Arbel, who could decide by the end of the week.
Yaacov Weinroth, Netanyahu's lawyer, told Israel's Channel One television that he would try to persuade prosecutors that the charges against the prime minister are baseless.
Shai Bazak, Netanyahu's spokesman, predicted that the prime minister "will emerge completely clean from this matter."
But the police recommendation alone could be enough to fracture Netanyahu's coalition government and cut short his tenure in office, political observers say.
"Whatever the decision of the attorney general is going to be, it is a terrible blemish on Israeli politics, on Israeli politicians and Israeli society," said Emanuel Guttman, a political scientist from Hebrew University.
"How on earth, in such a situation, can Israel now conduct the peace process?" he asked. "The whole political establishment is now under a terrible cloud."
Preoccupation with a potential criminal indictment and its political consequences also could interfere with attempts to resurrect the moribund peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross arrived in Israel yesterday for talks with Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Talks have been at a standstill since Israel began construction of a controversial housing project in East Jerusalem and Palestinians returned to the streets in protest.
Police investigators also have recommended charges against Justice Minister Tsachi Hanegbi; Avigdor Lieberman, the prime minister's chief of staff; and Aryeh Deri, an Israeli parliament member on trial in an unrelated corruption case.
The scandal broke in late January when Israel Television reported that a political deal had been cut over the appointment of former Attorney General Roni Bar-On, a Tel Aviv lawyer with strong ties to Netanyahu's Likud coalition. Bar-On took the job Jan. 10, but resigned the same week, after the legal community challenged his suitability for the post.
The television station alleged that Deri, powerful head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, orchestrated the Bar-On appointment in return for a political payback.
Political deal alleged
The alleged deal was this: Deri and members of party would support Netanyahu's withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank city of Hebron in accordance with the peace agreement with the Palestinians.
In exchange, Netanyahu would appoint Bar-On to the top legal post, and Bar-On would offer Deri a plea bargain and end his lengthy criminal prosecution. The plea bargain on a lesser charge would enable Deri to return to a government minister's post.
The Associated Press reported yesterday that Deri would be charged with blackmail, Lieberman with breach of trust for his role in relaying Deri's threats to Netanyahu, and Hanegbi with breach of trust for misleading the Cabinet about Bar-On's
Netanyahu has dismissed the allegations as "lies." The others have denied any wrongdoing. But the prime minister called for a police investigation of the matter. At the time, three ministers in Netanyahu's Cabinet said the coalition government would have to fold if any of the charges proved true.
Two days ago, after 12 weeks of investigation in which 60 people were questioned, police presented a 995-page report to Israel's attorney general's office. The report remained sealed. But leaks to the Israeli news media indicated that police had recommended charges against Hanegbi, Lieberman and Deri. Netanyahu, who police questioned twice, appeared to have have been exonerated.
But last night, Israeli television reported that police also had recommended indictments against Netanyahu. Hefetz confirmed NTC the report. But he acknowledged that any prosecution would be difficult because the recommendation to charge the prime minister and the other government officials is based almost entirely on "a central witness, his credibility and our trust in him."
The report did not name the witness.
"We are aware of the problematics in presenting such a charge sheet on such a sensitive and complex matter based on one central witness, who may be considered and presented by the defense as unreliable and perhaps having his own interest," the investigative team said in the report. "But we believe one should rely on his testimony and at least present it to a court."
If the attorney general decides to indict Netanyahu, the criminal charges could lead to new elections. By a two-thirds vote, the Knesset, Israel's parliament, could call for new elections.
Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University, characterized an indictment against a sitting prime minister as "a political earthquake, a government earthquake, even a constitutional earthquake."
But he added that the alleged circumstances would make any charge tough to prove.
"Political deals are political deals," said Diskin. "To prove that in this case we had something beyond the regular political deals concerning nominations is not something very easy to prove."
'Beginning of the end'
Menahem Hofnung, a colleague of Diskin's at Hebrew University, said an indictment is beside the point.
"It's the beginning of the end of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel," said the political scientist and lawyer. "There will be tremendous pressure now from without and from within. There are people who are not happy with the policy of the government, and there are people especially in the Likud who think they will be the next prime minister."
Even Deri, one of the suspects in the case, conceded to Israel Radio that "it's very difficult for the Cabinet to function this way."
Pub Date: 4/17/97