Netanyahu Allies and Party Members Take 'Wait and See' Approach After Former Aide Turns State Witness

Despite a call urging Likud members to defend Netanyahu on television, only two did so – with one saying those who didn’t 'will pay come primaries'

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem July 23, 2017.
POOL/REUTERS

After it was reported Friday that Prime Minister’s Office former chief of staff Ari Harow would testify against Benjamin Netanyahu in the latter’s criminal investigation, aides asked lawmakers from his Likud party to send the message, in television interviews, that the evidence against the premier was weak. Only coalition chairman David Bitan and MK Amir Ohana heeded the call.

Bitan told Channel 2 News that the state’s deal with Harow does not strengthen the case against Netanyahu, adding that “the prime minister says he can deal with this and I believe him” and that this will not lead to new elections.

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Coalition whip and Likud MK David Bitan is one of only two Likud members who went on television to defense Netanyahu
Emil Salman

Bitan added that if the police had evidence, they wouldn’t need to strengthen it with Harow's testimony, saying “look at the facts and not just what the police claim. There’s a feeling that they must make a win in the investigation, and this creates a certain problem when it comes to the prime minister.” When asked why Likud ministers were not defending their boss in the television studios, Bitan promised that “they will pay come primaries.”

Other supporters include cabinet ministers Miri Regev and Ayoub Kara, as well as MKs David Amsalem, Nava Boker and Yoav Kish.

Even though Netanyahu, in a video posted on Friday, called the news “background noise,” last week he canceled several meetings to meet with advisers and Channel 10 even reported that Netanyahu hopes to add a high-powered lawyer to his team.

Most Likud activists are standing behind Netanyahu. Some see the accusations as a left-wing conspiracy, while others believe the allegations don’t warrant his removal.

Even cabinet members who see themselves as his potential replacements are careful not to do anything that would be perceived as disloyal.

Other coalition parties are putting a finger to the wind to gauge public opinion. The ultra-Orthodox parties won’t take a stand on this issue, both for lack of interest and because Shas Chairman Arye Dery is also involved in criminal investigations.

Yisrael Beiteinu signed a strategic pact with the prime minister that will not be broken even if an indictment involving serious allegations is filed.

Kulanu Chairman Moshe Kahlon returned on Saturday from a visit to the United States. The party won’t take a stand unless charges are brought against Netanyahu.

“There’s a difference between champagne and cigars and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash that were given for personal use,” a senior Kulanu official told Haaretz, drawing a comparison between the allegations raised again Netanyahu and his family. Kulanu does not want an election now, since it will take another year to promote a plan for cheaper housing, which they have spearheaded as their flagship legislation and which might add to their support.

Habayit Hayehudi is also waiting for developments. “The right wing is not interested in stories of corruption” a senior party official told Haaretz, speaking on condition of anonymity. But the chairman, Naftali Bennett, might exploit the crisis around the investigations for making further gains for the right.

'Enough is enough'

Opposition leaders, however, were quick to say that Netanyahu must step down if indicted. As for the opposition – Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay is abroad on vacation. From there he issued a declaration saying that “Israel’s citizens deserve a different leadership, a Prime Minister not surrounded by state witnesses and heads of coalition parties that can say: enough is enough. We don’t have any further expectations of Netanyahu but the voice of his partners in the cabinet has not been heard. It’s no longer a matter of right and left but of leaders who care for their citizens.”

In a Facebook post, he wrote that Israelis were fed up with a prime minister who is surrounded by state’s witnesses, adding that he is optimistic that Israel is at the peak of the crisis and facing the beginning of a new era after a decade of decay.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a fellow Labor Party MK said over the weekend that “so far the party is not taking sufficient advantage of the opportunity to present itself as an alternative.”

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid called on Netanyahu to ask police to lift the gag orders on several ongoing investigations, telling Channel 2 News that “he should face the State of Israel and detail his role in these affairs.” Lapid said politicians on the right were attempting to portray the affair as a political struggle, “as if the left were chasing the prime minister. This is not a political struggle, all those involved — the police chief, the state prosecutor, the attorney general — are all Netanyahu appointments.” Lapid added that if Netanyahu is indicted, he will not be able to continue serving as prime minister.

Last week, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said that Netanyahu would not necessarily be forced to step down should he be indicted.

Meretz chairwoman Zahava Galon slammed Shaked’s statements, saying that she is not interested in the transparent political considerations behind Shaked’s remarks, adding that “we must not get used to this corruption.”