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Indictment of Israeli Premier Seems Unlikely

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday appeared likely to escape indictment in the corruption scandal swirling about his troubled government, but the political crisis was far from over.

State Atty. Edna Arbel said prosecutors had reached decisions in the influence-peddling case that has come to be known as the “Bar-On affair” and hoped to announce them Sunday. She did not disclose the findings, but legal analysts and Israeli media reports said all indications were that no charges would be filed against Netanyahu.

Even so, Netanyahu’s legal woes--let alone his political ones--were far from over. Legal analysts said the decisions made by Arbel and her boss, current Atty. Gen. Elyakim Rubinstein, are subject to review by the Israeli Supreme Court.

On several occasions in recent years, the court has rejected prosecutors’ decisions not to file indictments in matters considered to be of public interest and has returned the cases to prosecutors for charges.

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Also unclear was whether one or more of the five small parties that make up Netanyahu’s parliamentary coalition along with his own Likud Party would bolt, forcing the government to fall.

Two others implicated in the affair, Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and Netanyahu aide Avigdor Lieberman, also were expected to avoid criminal charges.

But an indictment, reportedly for extortion, was expected against a key member of Netanyahu’s coalition, Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party.

Deri’s supporters responded angrily to the reports, warning that Shas members will create a political “earthquake” if their leader is the only one indicted in the case. The implicit threat was that Shas, which controls 10 votes in Netanyahu’s 66-seat coalition, could pull out, forcing early elections that party leaders believe could boost their hold on power.

The affair involves allegations that Netanyahu, Hanegbi and Lieberman conspired to appoint Jerusalem lawyer Roni Bar-On attorney general in January under pressure from Deri. The influential Shas leader allegedly believed that Bar-On would help him secure a plea bargain in his long-running corruption trial. But Bar-On resigned less than a day later, stung by criticism that he was unqualified for the post.

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Police investigators recommended this week that Netanyahu, Hanegbi and Lieberman be brought to trial for fraud and breach of the public trust.

Police acknowledged, however, that the case against the prime minister was “softer” than those against the other officials and said it relied primarily on the testimony of a single witness.

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The specific accusations against Netanyahu have remained a mystery.

Aside from a cover letter, the 995-page police report has not been made public.

Without details of the alleged wrongdoing, commentators and members of the public have been left to speculate about how the affair may have crossed the blurry line between ordinary, if unsavory, political deal-making and illegality.

The police also took the unusual step of making their recommendation for Netanyahu’s indictment conditional upon his being interrogated a second time. On Friday, Arbel, the state attorney, said the prime minister will not be questioned again.

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Also on Friday, Israel’s Channel One quoted unnamed prosecutorial sources as saying Netanyahu, Hanegbi and Lieberman will not be indicted.

Israeli newspapers cited legal sources who said that indictments probably will not be issued because of insufficient evidence.

In any event, Netanyahu is believed likely to come in for strong criticism in the prosecutors’ report for his handling of the affair, which is expected to leave his administration, at best, under an ethical cloud.

“He skipped the indictment; I’m not sure he skipped the scandal,” said Moshe Negbi, one of Israel’s top legal experts.

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The Shas Party could bring the government down on its own, as could Natan Sharansky’s party of Russian immigrants, which controls seven seats in the parliament.

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The Third Way party, whose four votes are not enough to break the coalition alone, also appeared troubled by the reports. Internal Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani, the party leader, said Friday that he is “not glued” to his Cabinet seat, in case the investigation shows that members of the government acted outside the bounds of behavior he considers acceptable.

The Israeli public appeared unsettled by the affair as well. An opinion poll published Friday in the newspaper Maariv showed that 55% of Israelis believe Netanyahu should resign if an indictment is issued against him or against Hanegbi.

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Another survey, by Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest daily, found that 52% believe he should resign only if convicted.


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