Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may still secure a fourth term in office after coalition partners vowed to stay loyal in the upcoming elections, despite the country’s attorney-general announcing plans to indict him.
The declaration of support from various right-wing parties could save Mr Netanyahu in the 9 April polls, where he will be battling a powerful centrist coalition under the shadow of a looming trial.
On Thursday, Avichai Mandelblit, the country’s top prosecutor, announced his intention to charge the embattled leader in three corruption cases, pending a hearing, which would mark the first time in Israeli history that a serving prime minister is indicted.
Speaking to The Independent, a number of party spokespersons said that they would remain loyal to the right-wing leader at least until the pre-trial hearing, which will likely take place after the elections.
According to new polls released on Friday, Mr Netanyahu is likely to secure a razor-thin majority coalition in the 120-seat Knesset, just enough to push him over the finish line.
“Everyone deserves the presumption of innocence,” said a source close to Naftali Bennett, Mr Netanyahu’s Education Minister and a key coalition partner, who recently formed the New Right party.
“The decision to back the prime minister remains in place, and to recommend him to the president after the elections. That will remain party policy until there has been a decision by the attorney-general pending the hearing," he added.
Mr Bennett's New Right party said in a statement “We respect the attorney-general's decision, and just as he stated that he will come to the hearing with an open mind, so too will we wait for its conclusion.“
His sentiments were echoed by all the other parties in Mr Netanyahu’s current coalition, bar Moshe Khalon’s centrist Kulanu party, which has yet to make a statement either way.
Kulanu party's spokesman did not respond to a request for comment by The Independent.
However, Avigdor Lieberman, Mr Netanyahu’s former defence minister and head of the Israel Beytenu, said that only the country’s courts were permitted to rule on whether someone was guilty or not.
“The presumption of innocence is assured for anyone, including the prime minister. Therefore, as far as we’re concerned, Netanyahu can run in the Knesset elections like anyone else,” he said in a statement.
United Torah Judaism, Shas and the Union of Right Wing Parties, echoed Mr Lieberman and vowed to back the leader in the elections.
There are no legal ramifications if Mr Netanyahu runs in the elections with an indictment over him, but it could impact his allies' decision to sit with him on a government.
Mr Netanyahu is facing as many as 10 years in jail on a multitude of charges in three corruption cases dubbed 1000, 2000 and 4000.
In Case 1000, he is accused of allegedly receiving gifts from Hollywood and business friends in return for political favours.
In Case 2000, he is accused of negotiating a deal with the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper to limit the coverage of rival newspaper Israel Hayom, in return for better coverage.
In Case 4000, police alleged that he and his wife granted regulatory favours to Israel’s leading telecommunications company, Bezeq, in return for more positive coverage on Walla, a news website belonging to Bezeq’s owner Shaul Elovitch.
He has repeatedly denied all the charges and Thursday night said he was the victim of a Leftist “witch hunt”.
He is due to face a pre-trial hearing in the coming months, after which the attorney-general will issue his final decision.
Despite Thursday's damning recommendation, a new poll conducted by Israeli i24 News and Israel Hayom said Friday that although Mr Netanyahu’s Likud Party will not win the highest number of seats in the Knesset, his alliance of right-wing parties will be the only bloc capable of forming a majority coalition to rule the country.
The poll said Mr Netanyahu’s Likud Party would secure 29 seats in the elections well below the 38 predicted to be swept by the Blue and White alliance, a party led by the premier’s chief rival and the country’s ex-army chief Benny Gantz.
But should his right-wing alliance band together, he would be able to form a coalition of 62 seats of 120-seat Knesset, giving him the majority needed to lead.
Cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz defended the leader on Israeli radio on Friday saying was "confident that Netanyahu will continue being able to contend with pressure of whatever kind", noting that the previous Likud leader, Ariel Sharon, had won an election in 2003 despite a graft scandal.
Nevertheless, the leader has faced a torrent of criticism and calls for his resignation from the centre and left. Lt. Gen Gantz, his main rival, urged him to step down Thursday night, saying that he cannot rule the country and be distracted with legal hearings at the same time.
Labour party leader Avi Gabbay also urged the leader to resign saying he is “embarrassing the state of Israel… in order to save himself”.
The head of Israel’s leftist Meretz party Tamar Zandberg, meanwhile, called Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party “accomplices” in his crime.
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