Benjamin Netanyahu may remain in office despite indictment

Embattled leader has vowed to cling to power

epa08022473 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  during a visit to Israeli army base in the Golan Heights located on the Israeli-Syrian border in Israel, 24 November 2019.  EPA/ATEF SAFADI / POOL
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not have to step aside after being indicted for alleged corruption, the country's attorney general ruled on Monday.

The bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges filed against Mr Netanyahu on Thursday prompted calls from the centre-left opposition and a watchdog group for his departure, and stirred leadership challenges from his Likud party.

Israeli law does not require him to step down at this stage.

He denies wrongdoing and has vowed to stay in power, even though his position is already in doubt after he and rival Benny Gantz failed to get a majority in two elections this year.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Monday convened his senior staff to discuss if Mr Netanyahu should be declared temporarily unfit for office, a status that would require he resign or take a leave of absence, the Justice Ministry said.

"The issue of temporary unfitness for office should be left in the public-political realm as there is no place for an attorney general's decision at this time," the ministry said.

Mr Mandelblit said  reasons included the fact that Mr Netanyahu leads a caretaker government.

Israeli commentators interpreted "public-political realm" as a reference to party or national elections, and possible petitions to the Supreme Court to order Mr Netanyahu to step aside.

One such petition, by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, was filed with the court and dismissed on Sunday.

After Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz failed to form a coalition government, Israel is in a three-week period during which politicians can choose a new candidate from their ranks to form a government.

Whether Mr Netanyahu qualifies may come down to him holding on to the Likud party leadership.

A challenger within the party, Gideon Saar, said on Sunday that, at his behest, Likud would hold a leadership election.

Mr Saar said he hoped it would take place within the three weeks allotted to find a new nominee. A Likud spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A poll of Likud supporters broadcast on Israel's Channel 13 TV found that 53 per cent would re-elect Mr Netanyahu as party head, compared with 40 per cent for Mr Saar.

Senior Likud members serving as Cabinet ministers have largely rallied behind Mr Netanyahu.

He said Likud was still in talks with Mr Gantz's Blue and White party on forming a broad "national unity" coalition.

Such talks already held stalled amid disagreement, including over the order in which Mr Netanyahu and his rival might serve in top office as part of a proposed rotating premiership.

But Mr Gantz accused Mr Netanyahu of being a "unity refuser", implying that there were no serious coalition talks under way.

"Likud leaders: we were elected to take care of security, education and health, or Netanyahu's legal situation?" Mr Gantz tweeted.