Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces an increasingly tough time ahead as his biggest political opponent overtakes him in popularity and as calls mount for him to resign over looming corruption charges that could effectively end his political career.
Ex-Israeli military chief of staff Benny Gantz, head of the newly-formed center-left Blue and White political alliance, has both gained in popularity — past that of Netanyahu’s — and urged the Israeli prime minister to resign.
“Netanyahu, I am calling on you to… resign from your position. You can return to politics with your head up when you prove you are innocent,” he said.
The call came after Israeli Attorney General Aluf Avichai Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu for fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases, and for bribery in one of them, pending a hearing.
Netanyahu is involved and has been investigated in at least three criminal cases.
So-called Case 1,000 involves allegations that Netanyahu received luxury gifts from international billionaires in exchange for favors. In Case 2,000, he is accused of conspiring with the owner of Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper to undermine a critical daily. Case 4,000 also involves allegations that Netanyahu offered incentives to the Israeli telecom provider Bezeq in return for positive stories in Walla news website.
It is the first time that a serving Israeli prime minister is told he faces criminal charges.
At a press conference on Thursday, Netanyahu called the allegations a “witch hunt intended to topple” his right-wing administration, stressing that he intends to continue as Israeli prime minister “for many more years.” He is running for a fifth term in the April 9 general elections.
But a poll conducted by The Times of Israel on Friday — the first poll since Mandelblit said he would proceed with the public indictment — showed that more than two-thirds of Israelis believed Netanyahu should resign if is indicted.
Another poll, published by the Kan public broadcaster on Saturday, showed that 41 percent of respondents picked Gantz and 40 percent Netanyahu when asked who they thought was most fit to serve as Israel’s prime minister.
It was the first time that Gantz was taking a lead over Netanyahu in the polls.
More resignation calls
Avi Gabbay, head of the Labor Party, also called on Netanyahu to “immediately” resign, saying the prime minister was “shaming” Israel
“He is ruining everything in order to save himself. The people of Israel don’t want a corrupt government,” he said.
Moreover, the Meretz left-wing party called for a special meeting of the Israeli parliament to discuss Netanyahu’s indictment.
“The issue is about a corrupt prime minister,” it said in a statement.
On Saturday evening, Netanyahu’s opponents took to the streets of Tel Aviv to demand his resignation.
In Tel Aviv, the protesters chanted slogans such as “Corrupt, go home.” They also waved signs reading, “Crime Minister” and “Time for Netanyahu to go.”
In Ramla, near Tel Aviv, Labor activists projected onto a wall of the Maasiyahu prison a giant message reading “Netanyahu, Israel is ashamed.”
Netanyahu’s supporter held a rival rally in Tel Aviv.
Under Israeli law, the prime minister is not obliged to step down unless he is charged, convicted, and loses all appeals, a potentially lengthy process.