Cabinet slow to back embattled Netanyahu

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As Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, waits to see if he will be put on trial there were signs yesterday that his support is fraying in his cabinet and governing coalition.

On Sunday Mr Netanyahu will learn if the attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, and the state attorney, Edna Arbel, agree with the police recommendation that he should be indicted with three of his associates. The police alleged this week that the prime minister had helped criminal suspects to appoint their own candidate as Israel's chief prosecutor.

It is unlikely that Mr Netanyahu himself will be indicted, the Israeli press said yesterday, but he is likely to be the target of a damning report on his behaviour. The daily Yediot Aharanot says the state attorney's office is divided on the advisability of an indictment. It says that three senior officials are in favour and three are against, including the state attorney herself.

If Mr Netanyahu is not indicted the decision will certainly be challenged in the High Court which could decide that the prime minister will be prosecuted. The weakness of the case against him is that it depends on the evidence of Dan Avi-Yitzhak, the former lawyer of Aryeh Deri, the leader of the religious party Shas, who is on trial for corruption. Mr Deri is accused of seeking the appointment of Roni Bar-On, an obscure party loyalist, as attorney general in order to influence the outcome of his trial.

Mr Netanyahu faces two political dangers, even if he is not indicted. Members of his cabinet have been slow to come to his defence and their efforts sound a little grudging. Many are old rivals of the prime minister. Dan Meridor, the Finance Minister, is reported to have said that it is hard to believe Mr Netanyahu will be wholly cleared.

Two of the parties forming the government coalition might withdraw support. The Third Way, a splinter group from the Labour party with four seats in the 120-seat Knesset, is restive. Yehuda Harel, one of its leaders, said: "If it becomes clear that there are serious improprieties so far as democracy and the public are concerned, then we won't be able to support the government and will call for early elections."

Natan Sharanksy, the leader of the Russian immigrants' party with seven seats, is on bad terms with the prime minister, once a close friend. When the scandal broke in January he said that "if only 10 per cent of the allegations" turned out to be true the government should fall. He claims that in cabinet he voted for Mr Bar-On "because I trusted Netanyahu, and he betrayed me".

Mr Netanyahu continues to insist that he did nothing wrong. His tactic is to portray the police investigation as politically inspired. "At the heart of this matter is a political campaign," said Dan Naveh, the cabinet secretary. "The public in Israel wanted (this) government, and now there is an assault trying to change this."

This attack on the investigators is unlikely to do Mr Netanyahu much good. An opinion poll in Yediot Aharanot shows that 52 per cent of Israelis believe the police behaved professionally and honestly. A quarter of those asked thought the prime minister should resign now, 20 per cent that he should resign if indicted and 52 per cent only if he convicted by a court.