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Confusion and uncertainty deepen in Israel while Netanyahu fights for political survival

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A challenging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday rejected calls for dismissal and lashed out at countless enemies observed as a criminal corruption charge against him plunged his political future, and that of his country, into a pandemonium.

Netanyahu vowed to fight the allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu and his main political rival, Benny Gantz, failed to form a government after two dead-heat elections in April and September. He called on his supporters to hold public demonstrations in his defense, although only a small number of supporters took to the streets on Thursday and Friday.

For Netanyahu (70), the first incumbent prime minister to be charged in Israel, it was unclear whether he would be forced to resign. Anyway, many analysts see his ability to rule weakened.

After three years of investigation, the charge was announced by Atty on Thursday. General Avichai Mandelblit was expected for a long time. Nevertheless it landed like a bomb.

The charges, with a possible prison sentence of up to 16 years, claim that Netanyahu has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from business figures, including luxury items such as cigars and champagne. He is also accused of handing out political favors in exchange for more positive coverage by an Israeli newspaper and an online outlet.

The unstable political scene of the country was brought into greater chaos by the indictment, but the precipitation started slowly, perhaps due to the first cold fall of autumn or the arrival of Shabbat. Only about 50 people gathered outside the official Netanyahu residence in Jerusalem, despite intense exhortations from his right-wing Likud party. The party planned a & # 39; massive & # 39; Tuesday evening. statement of support.

In the first of many expected petitions, the Labor Party of the opposition and the Movement for Quality Government announced on Friday that they will submit a call to the Supreme Court to force the Prime Minister to resign. Israeli law requires regular cabinet ministers to resign if they are indicted, but an untested law allows an accused prime minister to remain in office until a final decision, after all appeals have been exhausted.

Some Israelis were concerned about Netanyahu's call to the public to take to the streets, believing that it would only cause tensions. The country has been on the alert for much of the year, with Netanyahu acting as prime minister since the first failed election procedure in March, with renewed violence in the Palestinian Gaza Strip and a growing regional influence of Iran.

The US has remained a steadfast ally, with President Trump repeatedly granting Netanyahu political favors, such as recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. However, Trump has been less enthusiastic in recent months and has not commented on Netanyahu's new predicament.

Even some on the right side of Israel notice that their enthusiasm for Netanyahu is declining.

"I have a great deal of respect for most of what you have done as a prime minister and it will be a holiday for me if you are found innocent," said Hanoch Daum, a comedian who identifies himself as from the right. "But I have no intention of assisting you in the civil war that you are now starting."

Former Justice Minister Dan Meridor, a dissatisfied but lifelong member of Likud, praised the capacity of Israeli institutions.

"I'm not happy that a prime minister has been charged, but given the seriousness of the accusations, if the investigation had ended without charges, I would feel much worse," he said. “Not many countries in the world investigate corruption at the Israeli level. And the fact that the Attorney General resisted attacks, smears and attempts to delegate him is a source of great honor for Israeli society. "

Using rhetoric similar to that of Trump, who may also be accused of bribery and his defenders, Netanyahu described the indictments of Mandelblit as an "attempted coup" and a witch hunt, which demanded an "investigation of the investigators."

An Israel perhaps as polarized as the United States seemed to defend or reject Netanyahu along partisan lines.

"Likud Knesset (parliament) members stay with Netanyahu as Republican politicians stay with Trump," said Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, on Twitter. "It's tribal politics: they both don't dare to leave their bases."

Even more complicated: Israel is probably about to start a third election campaign. Until then, any member of Knesset can raise his or her hand to try to form a government, but those prospects also seem unlikely.

Special correspondent Tarnopolsky reported from the writer Wilkinson from Jerusalem and Times from Washington.

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