Combative Netanyahu rides out the storm

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Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, shows every sign of having ridden out the storm over his appointment of a chief prosecutor who would go easy on his friends and allies in their legal troubles. As Israel begins the Passover holiday none of his cabinet members or the parties who belong to his coalition had resigned.

Mr Netanyahu counter-attacked on television as soon as attorney-general Elyakim Rubinstein announced on Sunday the Prime Minister would not be indicted. The Israeli leader repeated his favourite tactic of claiming a famous victory and total justification of his actions, although what Mr Rubinstein said was rather different. Mr Netanyahu said: "I didn't commit any crime and the attorney-general verified this."

In fact Mr Rubinstein said: "There were good grounds to suspect an illegitimate motive [in the appointment], but not enough evidence for a criminal indictment." He also said: "The actions of the Prime Minister raised suspicions."

In the wake of the report issued by the attorney-general and Edna Arbel, the state attorney, ministers who had appeared to be on the edge of resignation began to announce that they would stick with the government. Even Dan Meridor, the Finance Minister, long a discontented member of the cabinet, is to remain at his post. He is to be a member of a new committee which is to vet senior appointments in future.

A poll after the attorney-general's report by the daily Yediot Aharanot found that 58 per cent of Israelis did not think Mr Netanyahu should resign, although 40 per cent said he should. The effect of the affair appears to have been to deepen the divide within Israeli society. However, 56 per cent believe that Tzahi Hanegbi, the Justice Minister, who was also not indicted, should resign while 38 per cent thought he should not.

The Prime Minister presented the attacks on him as purely motivated by political animosity. He said: "They cannot accept the fact that the people voted for us and not for them. They cannot accept the fact that we are building on Har Homa. They refuse to accept our vigorous objection to a Palestinian state. They refuse to be reconciled to the fact that we are guarding the Golan Heights."

Palestinians expressed concern yesterday that this rhetoric would lead Mr Netanyahu to be even more intransigent in negotiations with them.

Only one of those against whom the police had asked for indictments, Aryeh Deri, the leader of the religious Shas party, will be prosecuted, which is leading to allegations of discrimination by Israelis from North Africans, who are the main supporters of Shas.

Mr Netanyahu sounded combative as he claimed that the attorney-general had exonerated him, but the affair has been a further blow to his prestige. The new appointments commission may also make it difficult for him to put his own candidates in top jobs. Five petitions to the Supreme Court call for the attorney-general's decision to be reversed and Mr Netanyahu to be indicted.