Netanyahu is defiant, says 'truth will win' Political analysts question whether coalition can survive

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be threatened with criminal indictment, but he defiantly told political supporters yesterday that his government will be in power after the turn of the millennium.

In a speech before Likud coalition members in Tel Aviv, the prime minister did not speak directly to the political corruption charges being considered against him.

But he alluded to his innocence when he said confidently: "Truth will win. I'm confident truth will win.

"We are staying at the place where the people and history have determined us to be," Netanyahu said in the face of calls by opposition leaders that he step down. "We will continue leading the state of Israel to the year 2000. Also beyond the year 2000."

Netanyahu was greeted with calls of "Bibi, king of Israel, is alive." He told his backers that he had received messages of support "from all over the country."

Israeli police stunned the country Wednesday when they revealed their recommendation that Netanyahu be charged with breach of trust and fraud after an investigation arising from his short-lived appointment of a political crony as attorney general in an alleged deal for votes and a plea bargain in a corruption case.

The police also confirmed that they proposed similar charges against Justice Minister Tsachi Hanegbi; Avigdor Lieberman, the prime minister's chief of staff; and Aryeh Deri, the powerful head of the ultra-Orthodox religious party Shas and a member of the Israeli parliament.

Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubenstein and State Attorney Edna Arbel are reviewing police investigators' 995-page report and are expected to decide whether to indict the prime minister before the Passover holiday begins Monday evening.

David Bar-Illan, a key aide to Netanyahu, said the police recommendation against the prime minister was "based on very flimsy evidence of just one person. Therefore, we cannot imagine that the attorney general will press charges."

Police have acknowledged that their case against Netanyahu is based largely on the evidence of one individual, but they argue that the evidence is solid.

An indictment would likely end Netanyahu's term in office, though, technically, he might not be required to resign even if convicted. But Israeli newspapers quoted Cabinet ministers and unnamed members of Likud yesterday as questioning whether Netanyahu's coalition government would survive even if no charges are filed.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai offered support.

"I want to strengthen the prime minister's hands," he said during a speech at the Likud coalition meeting, "and wish the prime minister that, in a short time, it will become clear to all of us that all these pitfalls are behind us."

Hemi Shalev, a political analyst for the Israeli newspaper Maariv, suggested that the fate of the Netanyahu government remains unclear.

"From a political aspect, time will stand still until it is clear whether there is still a government in Israel or if the police recommendation, with or without actual prosecution, is discovered to be a shot which has turned Netanyahu and his ministers into lame ducks who do not recover from their wounds," he wrote.

The opposition Labor Party, under the leadership of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, continued to call for Netanyahu to resign.

"There is no longer any moral basis justifying his remaining in office," a Labor Party statement said yesterday.

Moshe Shahal, a member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, and a former minister of internal security, likened the seriousness of the allegations against Netanyahu to the case against U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, who resigned under the cloud of the Watergate scandal in 1974.

Labor Knesset member Efraim Sneh said he had spoken with members of Netanyahu's coalition government about ways to bring down the government.

"I had a very clear sign that they feel this government as it is can no longer govern," said Sneh. "We are talking about 11 members of the Knesset. And when you add it to the opposition's 52, you have 63 votes."

That would be a majority of the 120-member parliament, and thus sufficient for a successful vote of no confidence against the Netanyahu government.

Alexander Lubotzsky, a member of one of the smaller parties in the Netanyahu coalition, said yesterday that if the accusations against Netanyahu are true, it is clear "we cannot continue" in such a Cabinet.

The police recommendations stem from a 12-week investigation into an alleged political deal involving the short-lived appointment in January of Roni Bar-On as attorney general. The specific allegations against Netanyahu and the three political officials have not been released.

But the alleged scheme, as first reported in January by Israel's Channel One, went like this: Netanyahu appoints Bar-On at the urging of Deri, who is ensnared in a lengthy political corruption trial. In return, Deri and Shas members support Israeli troop withdrawals from the West Bank city of Hebron as specified under the 1993 Middle East peace accords. Once in office, Bar-On would negotiate a plea bargain to end Deri's case and enable him to return to a Cabinet post.

Bar-On was appointed Jan. 10, but resigned within 48 hours after Israel's legal establishment faulted his suitability for the post.

Police investigators made no recommendation that Bar-On be indicted.

Possible scenarios

If prosecutors decide against bringing charges, the prime minister could call early elections himself to clear his name.

If charges are brought, Netanyahu could ride out the scandal, resign or be impeached. If he quit or was forced out, voters would pick a new premier within 60 days. A Cabinet- appointed replacement would serve in the meantime.

Netanyahu also could suspend himself for up to 100 days to face trial. In that case, he would appoint a Cabinet member as his stand-in.

If Netanyahu were to stay in office to fight any charges, the Supreme Court could force his suspension or resignation. The Supreme Court also could force an indictment.

Removal by the Knesset -- where Netanyahu's coalition controls 66 of the 120 votes -- would take the support of at least 80 members unless Netanyahu were convicted, in which case it would take only 61 votes.

The Knesset could dismiss him with 61 votes even if he were not charged, but this would mean dissolving parliament as well.

Pub Date: 4/18/97

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