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Israel Braces for Bitter Fight         11/22 06:24

   JERUSALEM (AP) -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's indictment is expected 
to sharpen the battle lines in Israel's already deadlocked political system and 
could test the loyalty of his right-wing allies, Israeli commentators said 
Friday.

   The serious corruption charges announced Thursday appear to have dashed 
already slim hopes for a unity government following September's elections, 
paving the way for an unprecedented repeat vote in March, which will be the 
third in less than a year.

   In an angry speech late Thursday, Netanyahu lashed out at investigators and 
vowed to fight on in the face of an "attempted coup."

   His main opponent, the centrist Blue and White party, called on him to 
"immediately resign" from all his Cabinet posts, citing a Supreme Court ruling 
that says indicted ministers cannot continue to hold office. Netanyahu also 
serves as minister of health, labor and Diaspora affairs, as well as acting 
minister of agriculture.

   He is not legally required to step down as prime minister, but Netanyahu 
faces heavy pressure to do so, and it is unclear whether an indicted politician 
could be given the mandate to form a new government. Netanyahu has already 
failed to form a majority coalition of 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset after 
two hard-fought elections this year.

   "This will not be an election, it will be a civil war without arms," 
columnist Amit Segal wrote in Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "There is a 
broad constituency that believes what Netanyahu said yesterday, but it is far 
from being enough for anything close to victory."

   Writing in the same newspaper, Sima Kadmon compared Netanyahu to the Roman 
emperor Nero, saying "he will stand and watch as the country burns."

   Netanyahu was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust 
stemming from three long-running corruption cases. He has denied any wrongdoing 
and accused the media, courts and law enforcement of waging a "witch hunt" 
against him.

   The corruption charges will weigh heavily on Netanyahu's Likud party in 
future elections, but it's unclear if any senior member has the support or 
willingness to replace him.

   Hours before the indictment was announced, Gideon Saar, a senior Likud 
member, said a party primary should be held ahead of any future elections and 
that he would compete. But there are several other leading members of the 
party, and it's unclear if any one of them can gain enough support to topple 
its longtime leader.

   Some Likud members expressed support for Netanyahu after the indictment was 
announced, but most have remained mum.

   "If the attorney general should indeed announce that Netanyahu can no longer 
form a government, will (Likud members) stand up openly and work to form an 
alternative government? For that to happen, they will have to sit together in 
one room and trust each other, which is something that has not happened for the 
past decade," Segal wrote.

   Nevertheless, he concluded, "the great threat to Netanyahu is now posed from 
within."

   Amid all the political machinations, Netanyahu will have to prepare to go on 
trial. He can battle the charges, or he might seek a plea bargain in which he 
agrees to resign in return for avoiding jail time or hefty fines. Either 
process could drag on for months.

   Netanyahu is Israel's first sitting prime minister to be charged with a 
crime. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was forced to resign a decade ago ahead of 
a corruption indictment that later sent him to prison for 16 months.

   "We've got a number of political and legal processes which are all going to 
be happening now simultaneously," Anshel Pfeffer, a Haaretz columnist and the 
author of a biography of Netanyahu, told The Associated Press.

   "It's impossible to predict which one will bring about the end of 
Netanyahu's career," he said. "All these things are going ahead now, but 
slowly."


(KR)

 
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