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Netanyahu's grip on power under threat as gift scandal grows

David Wainer, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

Netanyahu told ministers from his Likud Party on Sunday that he is innocent of any wrongdoing, and portrayed the investigations as a witch hunt by his political opponents.

"What you have here is improper and relentless pressure from some media platforms on law enforcement authorities," he said. "I suggest to my colleagues in the opposition not to celebrate because there is nothing to celebrate. Governments are replaced at the ballot box."

It's not unprecedented for Israeli leaders to be investigated: Former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon were both questioned but ultimately weren't charged with crimes, while Netanyahu's immediate predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was sent to jail for bribery and obstruction of justice. Netanyahu himself was investigated in the past for allegations of financial impropriety. He has denied any illegal conduct and was never indicted.

Helping Netanyahu is the fact that his coalition has largely stayed behind him, and there are no obvious replacements on the right. Coalition Chairman David Bitan told Army Radio the premier shouldn't resign even if indicted, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman -- considered a prime ministerial aspirant from the Yisrael Beitenu party -- said he doesn't believe an indictment is forthcoming, according to the Haaretz newspaper.

Recent polls show the centrist Yesh Atid party would beat Likud if elections were held today. That said, polls in the last election underestimated Netanyahu's popular support.

While Netanyahu could yet face a political move to oust him, his most imminent risk right now is the legal one, said Yedidia Stern, vice president for research at the Israel Democracy Institute.

"There's no question that he will translate the investigation into a 'right vs. left' battle, and much of the right-wing camp will rally behind him," Stern said. "The question then becomes how good of a defense he's able to make against the police accusations. If he can win the legal battle, he's well-positioned to win the political one."

Even if Netanyahu does survive the legal challenge, eventually he will have to answer to a public exposed to incessant coverage of his alleged improprieties.

"It's yet unclear how this plays out with voters," Bar-Ilan's Gilboa said. "But stories of him smoking expensive cigars clearly do damage."

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