Influence-trading scandal rocks Israel

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — In a move that could bring down the Israeli government and snarl the peace process, police have recommended indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for breach of trust in an influence-trading scandal.
Although scandals in Israel are not infrequent, the recommendation police handed to state attorney Edna Arbel on Wednesday was the harshest ever against an Israeli government. Arbel was expected to announce by early next week whether to indict Netanyahu.
Police recommendations are not binding or always followed. Yet this one has the potential to break apart Netanyahu’s coalition — more brittle than ever since the allegations surfaced in January.
An indictment would ruin chances of bringing the opposition Labor Party into the government, a plan Netanyahu has been contemplating as a way of rescuing the disintegrating Middle East peace process.
The scandal started with Netanyahu’s appointment of a political crony as attorney general. Jerusalem lawyer Roni Bar-On resigned after only a day in office under criticism that he was a legal lightweight chosen for his political connections.
Days later, Israel TV claimed the appointment was part of a conspiracy by senior officials who expected Bar-On to end the corruption trial of Aryeh Deri, leader of the religious Shas Party. Deri, in turn, would ensure the two Shas Cabinet ministers gave Netanyahu the necessary backing for the Israeli troop pullback from most of the West Bank town of Hebron.
Netanyahu denied the allegations and called the inquiry. After 12 weeks and the questioning of 60 witnesses, including Netanyahu, investigators on Tuesday handed the state attorney their 995-page report.
Police did not make their findings public Tuesday, and news media initially reported that investigators recommended charges against Deri, top Netanyahu aide Avigdor Lieberman and Justice Minister Tsahi Hanegbi.
Deri reportedly would be charged with blackmail, Lieberman with breach of trust for his role in relaying Deri’s threats to Netanyahu, and Hanegbi with breach of trust for misleading the Cabinet about Bar-On’s qualifications.
On Wednesday, however, both Israeli TV stations reported that police had recommended charging Netanyahu himself with fraud and breach of trust. Officials confirmed the reports.
“Against the prime minister there is enough evidence to submit an indictment,” Police Commissioner Assaf Hefetz told Israel TV, after the leaks caused an uproar.
The prime minister’s attorney Yaakov Weinroth said the police findings against his client were ambiguous, and that Netanyahu would be questioned again about his role in Bar-on’s appointment.
Opposition leaders on Wednesday called on Netanyahu to suspend himself, but radio reports said Netanyahu had no plans to step down, even temporarily.
An indictment would not force Netanyahu’s resignation, but several allies already have hinted they may bolt the ruling coalition and deprive Netanyahu of his majority in parliament. The coalition now has 66 of 120 seats.
Four ministers, including Natan Sharansky of the seven-seat Yisrael B’Aliya Party, have said they would leave the coalition if the allegations were proven even partly true.
Netanyahu could try to govern with a minority, but it would be nearly impossible. New elections would probably have to be called. The next scheduled vote is in 2000.
Any indictments also would hurt the chances that the opposition Labor Party would join Netanyahu’s government. Labor officials have said they would shy away from such a partnership if a criminal shadow was hanging over the government.