JERUSALEM (Reuters) - 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, a reprieve for the conservative leader as he fights for his political survival.
The bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges filed against Netanyahu on Thursday - the first criminal indictment of a sitting Israeli premier - prompted calls for his departure from the center-left opposition and a watchdog group, as well as stirring up leadership challenges from within his Likud party.
Israeli law does not require Netanyahu 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 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.
Citing, among other considerations, the fact the Netanyahu heads a caretaker government, Mandelblit found that “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 in a statement.
Israeli commentators interpreted “public-political realm” as a reference to party or national elections, as well as potential petitions to the Supreme Court to order 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 both Netanyahu and Gantz failed to form a coalition government, Israel is in a three-week period during which lawmakers can choose a new candidate from their ranks to form a government.
Whether Netanyahu qualifies may come down to him holding onto the leadership of Likud.
A challenger within the party, Gideon Saar, said on Sunday that, at his behest, Likud would hold a leadership election. He voiced hope it would take place within the three-week period allotted to find a new nominee within. A Likud spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A poll of Likud supporters aired on Israel’s Channel 13 TV found that 53 percent would re-elect Netanyahu as party head against 40 percent for Saar. Senior Likud members serving as cabinet ministers have largely rallied behind Netanyahu.
He said Likud was still in talks with Gantz’s Blue and White party on forming a broad “national unity” coalition.
Previous such talks had stalled amid disagreement, including over the order in which Netanyahu and Gantz might serve in top office as part of a proposed rotating premiership.
Gantz, however, accused 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?” Gantz tweeted, in an apparent bid to bolster the internal party challenge to the prime minister.
Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich and David Clarke