Israel’s Netanyahu faces calls to quit but is defiant in crisis

Jerusalem (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced calls to resign over a corruption scandal on Friday, as senior government colleagues publicly declared support after some signs of cracks in party loyalty.

Netanyahu said he would not step down after he was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust by Israel’s attorney-general on Thursday night.

The 70-year-old conservative Likud party leader denies all wrongdoing and denounced the indictment – the first against a sitting Israeli prime minister – as an “attempted coup”.

But his ability to lead a country mired in political crisis, after two inconclusive elections this year that failed to produce a government, is being questioned.

The centrist Blue and White Party headed by Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz, issued a statement calling on him to “immediately resign from all ministerial positions in the government”.

The party – which has 33 of parliament’s 120 seats to Likud’s 32 – said its lawyers had formally approached the prime minister and attorney general’s offices saying it was “imperative” that Netanyahu step down.

A poll aired by Israel’s Channel 13 TV found that 56% of Israelis believe Netanyahu cannot continue to govern after being indicted. A total of 35% said he can and 9% were undecided.

Under Israeli law, he is under no obligation step down a prime minister. But with Israel heading towards a likely third election in less than a year, Netanyahu could soon find himself in the difficult position of trying to win an election while preparing to be prosecuted.

The support of his Likud party colleagues is likely to be crucial to Netanyahu’s chances of staying in power.