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FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem July 30, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the din of criminal investigations around him as "background noise" and dismissed speculation he will be forced to resign by saying simply on Facebook: "Won't happen." He might just be right.
At the moment time appears to be on Netanyahu's side and - unlike his predecessor Ehud Olmert, who quit and later went to jail for corruption - he leads a relatively stable coalition government and presides over a buoyant economy.
While a former top aide has agreed to testify about two corruption cases in which Netanyahu has been named as a suspect, the prime minister is not required by law to step down even if indicted. Any reckoning may be months away, possibly even allowing him to hold on till elections due in 2019.
Two clocks are ticking for Netanyahu - those of the judiciary and of politics - but they tend to do so slowly, according to Yohanan Plesner, president of the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute think tank.
This works in favour of Netanyahu's standing. "Over the next year there is certainly no reason to see a change," he told Reuters. However, like other observers, Plesner added the proviso that his assessment was based on the few details of the police inquiries that are publicly known.
Netanyahu's conservative Likud party has rallied behind him in the absence of clear rivals for the leadership, countering calls for his departure from the centre-left opposition. Likud's religious-nationalist coalition partners, seeing no threat to their agenda, are likewise sticking with him for now.
So far the most potentially combustible development has been a decision last week by Netanyahu's former chief of staff, Ari Harow, to provide evidence in inquiries into the two cases.
The so-called Case 1000 involves gifts that the prime minister and his family received from businessmen, while Case 2000 deals with alleged efforts by him to secure better coverage from an Israeli newspaper publisher.
Netanyahu - who has been prime minister for 11 years, spread over four terms - has denied any wrongdoing. Without naming him explicitly, police investigators have said they saw in the two cases grounds for charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Similar felony allegations forced Olmert to announce in 2008 he would resign, leading to early elections the following year which brought Netanyahu back to power.
Israeli commentators seized on the similarities, with one TV opinion poll finding that 51 percent disbelieved Netanyahu's assertion that he was the target of a politicised witch-hunt.
TIME WILL TELL
Olmert headed a weakened coalition and was trying to advance a peace deal with the Palestinians in the face of right-wing resistance when he quit. After lengthy legal cases, he finally went to prison last year but was freed on parole last month.
Some caution against hasty comparisons. "I think it is too early to draw conclusions, and that the media festival has been overblown," said Moshe Negbi, legal analyst for national broadcaster Israel Radio. He predicted that any decision to indict Netanyahu could take as much as six months as investigators seek evidence at home and abroad.
Thereafter, as is customary in Israel with defendants in senior positions, Netanyahu would be likely to be granted a similar period in which to ask the attorney-general to reconsider the filing of charges.
"A lot could happen meanwhile," Negbi said. "Witnesses may become unavailable. Memories can change and with it, testimony."
If Netanyahu completes his current term to 2019, he will become Israel's longest-serving prime minister, exceeding the country's founding leader David Ben-Gurion.
In exchange for testifying, Harow was granted a reduced sentence in a separate corruption case that did not touch on Netanyahu. Israel's Channel 2 TV quoted Harow as playing down what he witnessed in connection with Case 1000 and Case 2000.
"At the time, I did not think that these were criminal acts, nor do I presume now to declare them to have been such," he was quoted as saying.
Plesner said pressure on Netanyahu would increase were investigators to bring to light new allegations, perhaps in connection with other cases in which he is not now a suspect.
Wider geopolitics could also tip the scales. The opposition has been weakened by a stagnant peace process with the Palestinians, whereas Netanyahu has repeatedly cited Israelis' security concerns as a reason to rally behind him.
One critic, Netanyahu's former defence minister Ehud Barak, has accused him of fomenting a surge in Palestinian and Jordanian unrest last month over Israel's handling of a contested Jerusalem holy site. This was to distract attention away from his legal problems, Barak said.
"The reckless abandon of Netanyahu's conduct has been a glimpse into the abyss," Barak said in Facebook post on July 29. "He is willing to set the country and region alight just to extricate himself from the menace of the investigations."
Netanyahu confidants reject such arguments. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a far-right partner in the coalition, defended his right to stay on even if indicted. Otherwise, she told Army Radio on Tuesday, prosecutors and police risked becoming "political assassination tools".
But she also said her party would hold a review should charges be filed - a hint at a breakup that could trigger snap elections.
"If we reach that moment, we will sit and decide on the basis of the facts we know," she said. "My assessment is that it will take more time yet, and therefore I say all of the time, let the government do its work."
(Writing by Dan Williams; editing by David Stamp)