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Archive for Thursday, September 28, 2000

Charges dropped against ex-Israeli leader

September 28, 2000

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— Israel's attorney general announced Wednesday that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not face trial for bribery and other corruption charges, setting the stage for a political comeback that could shake up Israeli domestic politics and the Middle East peace process.

"I have decided to close the file against Mr. Netanyahu on the allegations against him due to a lack of sufficient evidence necessary to put him on criminal trial," Atty. Gen. Elyakim Rubinstein said in a 22-page written opinion. Rubinstein decided that Israeli authorities had gathered insufficient evidence to charge Netanyahu.

Even though the report did not fully lift the suspicion of wrongdoing from Netanyahu, it opens the door for the charismatic conservative politician to return to the political arena a year and a half after his defeat by liberal Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Although the right-wing party, Likud, is now led by Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu is by far the most popular candidate among voters and members of his own party to lead the Likud in the next general election. If re-elected, Netanyahu's hard-line stance with the Palestinians and Syria would likely cause a further deceleration of the peace process.

Netanyahu is scheduled today to return to Israel from the United States and could not be reached for comment, but his lawyer, Yaakov Weinrout, said he and his client were delighted at Rubinstein's decision. "I see this as an honor to the Israeli justice system in a case in which so many emotions were involved," Weinrout said. "Mr. Netanyahu attracts a lot of sympathy or antagonism. No one is indifferent to him."

The case against Netanyahu, his wife and two aides had revolved around the alleged acceptance of free home improvements performed by a contractor and the suggestion by the police that the Netanyahus had kept large numbers of gifts that they had received while he was in office, from 1996 to 1999. Under Israeli law, all gifts to the prime minister are the property of the state.

As Weinrout indicated, there is no politician in Israeli who generates greater emotion than Netanyahu, especially as regards Israel's negotiations with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Netanyahu represents a visceral divide in Israeli society, and on either side of the chasm are almost equal numbers of the electorate. For months, opinion polls have indicated that an election involving Barak and Netanyahu would be too close to call.

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