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Quit, polls or stick: future uncertain for Israel's Netanyahu

© AFP | Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses American-Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on February 21, 2018.

JERUSALEM (AFP) - 

Resignation, early elections, or staggering on: a series of corruption allegations have threatened Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's grip on power, but there are a number of ways the crisis might play out.

- The context -

Netanyahu, in power since 2009, is currently facing at least six police inquiries related to him either directly or indirectly.

On February 13 the police recommended he be charged for graft in two of them, while his wife is also accused of misusing public funds.

The allegations have thrown into doubt the 68-year-old's political future and the fate of his coalition government, considered the most right-wing in the country's history and made up of six centrist, right wing, religious and nationalist parties.

The pugnacious Israeli PM has protested his total innocence and confidence there will eventually be no charges.

"I continue and I will continue to lead the State of Israel with responsibility, commitment and dedication," Netanyahu wrote on Facebook Thursday.

- Staying put -

For the moment at least the most likely scenario appears to be that nothing major will happen.

Netanyahu's coalition partners have indicated they will wait for a formal indictment by the attorney general, which could be weeks or even months away -- if indeed it occurs.

"Legally, as long as there is no charge, we remain in the government," said Naftali Bennett, education minister and head of the nationalist Jewish Home party, in a statement echoed by centrist Moshe Kahlon.

Analysts said that the junior partners know that if they pull out and trigger an election then Netanyahu's Likud would likely triumph.

"The coalition is closely watching opinion polls and no party would win more votes than Likud," said Denis Charbit, a political scientist at the Open University of Israel.

And even if he is charged, Netanyahu would not legally be forced to withdraw.

- Early elections -

The current parliament's term is supposed to run until November 2019, but no Israeli government has completed a full term in decades -- with early elections the norm.

The leader of the largest opposition party Labour, Avi Gabbay, has called for his allies to be prepared for early polls.

Netanyahu himself called early elections in 2015 and upset the odds to win them.

He could be tempted to do the same if he feels it would strengthen his position, especially if the public back his claims that he is the victim of a witch hunt, said Avraham Diskin, from Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

Netanyahu On Facebook shared a poll which though the methodology was unclear indicated his party would be strengthened in a future election.

- Resignation -

Netanyahu?s predecessor Ehud Olmert was forced to resign in 2008 before being charged with corruption. But he was far weaker politically than Netanyahu is now, experts said.

"He has support despite the issues, so he will certainly not withdraw voluntarily," said Charbit.

But Israeli legal specialist Yoram Dinstein said that if Netanyahu is charged, "he will surely resign, although the law does not force him to".

According to the law, if the prime minister resigns, the president can appoint someone else without new elections to form a new government if they are supported by a majority of MPs, said Dinstein.

But in the absence of a government being formed with majority support, new elections are called.

- Step down temporarily -

Legally, Netanyahu could step back for 90 days without officially resigning, giving him time to settle his affairs.

This could afford the man who has dominated Israeli politics for the last decade some breathing space.

"None of the potential candidates for his succession in Likud will venture to stand against him during this time," Charbit said.

"He has managed to appear irreplaceable, a kind of Julius Caesar, and no one wants to be Brutus."

© 2018 AFP