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Police report is 'political earthquake' for Netanyahu

Netanyahu In this report:

April 16, 1997
Web posted at: 11:15 p.m. EDT (0315 GMT)

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- "It is not easy to draw a line between ostensibly legitimate political acts and acts which border on the criminal.... The decision to handle the issue in the framework of criminal law is extremely difficult."

So reads an excerpt from an Israeli police report which concludes that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be charged with fraud and breach of trust in an influence-peddling scandal.

Publication of the report Wednesday and the stir it has caused in Israel was likened to "a political earthquake" by Netanyahu's rival, Shimon Peres. And one consequence of that earthquake could be the fall of Netanyahu's right-wing government.

The charges revolve around the brief appointment of Roni Bar-On, a political crony, as the attorney general after Netanyahu became prime minister last May.

Deri

Police have been looking into the Bar-On appointment since January when an Israeli TV station, Channel One, reported it involved a political deal.

Politician Aryeh Deri, it reported, had pushed Bar-On for the job. Deri was on trial for corruption and the station alleged that he hoped to win a plea bargain once Bar-On became attorney general.

Netanyahu ordered police investigation

In return for appointing Bar-On, Deri allegedly promised that his Shas Party would support Netanyahu's plan to withdraw Israeli troops from the West Bank town of Hebron.

The deal, if such it was, fell through quickly. Bar-On quit only hours after being appointed when a firestorm of protested erupted over his lack of credentials for the job.

Netanyahu denied the charges when they were first made and ordered the police investigation. The case has dominated the Israeli press since, and was deemed important enough by the police to warrant a 995-page report.

Bar-On

The report says, in part, "We are convinced that on the basis of ... the evidence in the investigation file, it is appropriate to submit charges as detailed in the specific recommendations."

It continues, "The recommendations are based on the statement of a central witness... We are convinced, after getting to know this witness very well and being deeply impressed by him, that his testimony is worthy of credence and should at least be submitted to the scrutiny of the courts."

Case against Netanyahu called 'soft'

Netanyahu is expected to fight the charges, and his spokesman Shai Bazak said "... I have no doubt, no doubt whatsoever, that the prime minister has no problem with this affair -- that he will emerge completely clean from this matter."

His attorney, Yaacov Weinroth, told Channel One that he would try "to convince the prosecution that it is baseless." He said that the prosecutors told him that there were some doubts about the strength of the case.

Police Chief Assaf Hefetz also said that the case against Netanyahu is "softer" than that against three others -- Deri, Justice Minister Tsahi Hanegbi and one of Netanyahu's top aides, Avigdor Lieberman.

"But," Hefetz added, "in principle ... there is evidence for bringing an indictment against the prime minister on the charge of fraud and breach of trust."

State attorney Edna Arbel is expected to announce a decision about indictments by Monday, the start of the Passover holiday. The state prosecutor can choose to ignore the police recommendation.

Coalition may crumble

An editorial in the daily Yediot Ahronot Wednesday said, "The informal reports show ... a lot of people with dirty hands. Whether it is criminal dirt or just political -- this is what the state attorney will have to decide."

Handshake with Ross

If prosecutors do press charges, it is likely that Netanyahu will have to call for new elections. The prime minister won the last election by only 30,000 votes, and there are many people in the country who dislike him intensely.

There has been speculation that the Shas Party will withdraw from the coalition if Deri is indicted, which would leave Netanyahu without a majority.

The report comes at an especially embarrassing time for Netanyahu, since U.S. envoy Dennis Ross is in Israel trying to salvage the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Ross and U.S. officials in Washington declined to comment on what they termed Israel's "internal" matters, and Palestinian officials also declined to comment.

Not so shy, however, were dozens of demonstrators who appeared outside Netanyahu's house shouting "Bibi Go Home!" and "Elections Now!" Bibi is Netanyahu's nickname.

Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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