Netanyahu says anyone attacking Israel will be dealt ‘strongest blow’

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday, after an Iranian missile strike on U.S.-led forces in Iraq, that Israel would hit back hard against anyone who attacked his country.

Netanyahu reiterated his praise for U.S. President Donald Trump for the killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani last week, calling it a bold move.

The Israeli leader said Soleimani had tried to destabilize the region for decades and was “planning much worse.”

Without directly referencing Iran’s missile strikes overnight, in what Tehran called retaliation for the general’s death in Baghdad, Netanyahu said in a speech in Jerusalem that Israel stood beside the United States.

“Whoever tries to attack us will be dealt the strongest blow,” Netanyahu said, accusing Iran of leading a campaign to “strangle and destroy” Israel.

(Reporting by Stephen Farrell, Jeffrey Heller and Ari Rabinovitch)

Supreme leader in tears as huge crowd mourns slain commander in Tehran

By Parisa Hafezi and Jeff Mason

DUBAI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Iran’s supreme leader wept in grief with hundreds of thousands of mourners thronging Tehran’s streets on Monday for the funeral of military commander Qassem Soleimani, killed by a U.S. drone on the orders of U.S. President Donald Trump.

As the coffins of General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who also died in Friday’s attack in Baghdad, were passed over the heads of mourners, Soleimani’s successor vowed to expel U.S. forces from the region in revenge.

The killing of Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s drive to extend its influence across the Middle East, has stoked concern around the globe that a broader regional conflict could erupt.

Trump has listed 52 Iranian targets, including cultural sites, that could be hit if Iran retaliates with attacks on Americans or U.S. assets, although U.S. officials sought to play down the president’s reference to cultural targets.

General Esmail Ghaani, the new commander of the Quds Force, the elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards charged with overseas operations, promised to “continue martyr Soleimani’s cause as firmly as before with the help of God, and in return for his martyrdom we aim to rid the region of America”.

“God the Almighty has promised to take martyr Soleimani’s revenge,” he told state television. “Certainly, actions will be taken.”

Other political and military leaders have made similar, unspecific threats. Iran, which lies at the mouth of the key Gulf oil shipping route, has a range of proxy forces in the region through which it could act.

The crowd in Tehran, which state media said numbered in the millions, recalled the masses that gathered in 1989 for the funeral of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

NATIONAL HERO

Soleimani was a national hero in Iran – even to many who do not consider themselves supporters of Iran’s clerical rulers.

Aerial footage showed people packing thoroughfares and side streets and chanting “Death to America!”, a welcome show of national unity for Tehran after anti-government protests in November in which many demonstrators were killed.

Iran’s demand that U.S. forces quit the region gained traction on Sunday when Iraq’s parliament backed the prime minister’s recommendation for foreign troops to be ordered out.

Iraq’s rival Shi’ite leaders, including ones opposed to Iranian influence, have united since Friday’s attack to call for the expulsion of U.S. troops, who number about 5,000.

Soleimani, widely seen as Iran’s second most powerful figure behind Khamenei, built a network of proxy forces that formed a crescent of influence – and a direct challenge to the United States and its regional allies led by Saudi Arabia – stretching from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Iran. Outside the crescent, Iran nurtured allied Palestinian and Yemeni groups.

He notably mobilized Shi’ite Muslim militia forces in Iraq that helped to crush Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that had seized control of swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2013-14.

Washington, however, blames Soleimani for attacks on U.S. forces and their allies.

Prayers at Soleimani’s funeral in Tehran, which moves to the general’s southern home city of Kerman on Tuesday, were led by Khamenei, who wept as he spoke.

His daughter Zeinab Soleimani told mourners the United States would face a “dark day” for her father’s death.

Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, on his first trip to Iran since taking up his role in 2017, said “resistance against America” would continue.

NUCLEAR DEAL

Iran adding to tensions on Sunday by dropping all limitations on its uranium enrichment — another step back from commitments under a landmark deal with major powers in 2015 to curtail Iran’s nuclear program that Trump abandoned in 2018.

European Union foreign ministers plan to hold an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss ways to save the deal, two diplomats said. [nL8N29B3O7]

After quitting the deal, the United States imposed new sanctions on Iran, saying it wanted to halt Iranian oil exports, the main source of government revenues. Iran’s economy has been in freefall as the currency has plunged.

Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway said on Monday that Trump was still confident he could renegotiate a new nuclear agreement “if Iran wants to start behaving like a normal country”.

Tehran has said Washington must return to the existing nuclear pact and lift sanctions before any talks can take place.

Trump stood by remarks that cultural sites were potential targets, despite criticism from U.S. politicians that this amounted to a threat to commit war crimes.

“They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way,” Trump said.

Democratic critics of the Republican president have said Trump was reckless in authorizing the strike. Republicans in the U.S. Congress have generally backed his move.

Trump also threatened sanctions against Iraq and said Baghdad would have to pay Washington for an air base in Iraq if U.S. troops were required to leave.

It was not clear if Washington had advised its allies of its plans before killing Soleimani. Britain, which also has troops in Iraq, said it understood why the United States had acted but called for a de-escalation to avoid war.

(Reporting by Reuters reporters in Dubai Newsroom; Jeff Mason in Washington; Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Kevin Liffey)

U.S. says it disrupted ‘imminent attack’ with killing of Iran commander

 

By Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran promised harsh revenge on Friday after a U.S. air strike in Baghdad on Friday killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force and architect of its growing military influence in the Middle East.

Soleimani, a 62-year-old general, was regarded as the second most powerful figure in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

FILE PHOTO: Combination photo of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani (L) and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander in the Popular Mobilization Forces. REUTERS/Stringer/Thaier al-Sudani

The overnight attack, authorized by President Donald Trump, was a dramatic escalation in a “shadow war” in the Middle East between Iran and the United States and its allies, principally Israel and Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the strike aimed to disrupt an “imminent attack” that would have endangered Americans in the Middle East. Democratic critics said the Republican president had raised the risk of more violence in a dangerous region.

Pompeo, in interviews on Fox News and CNN, declined to discuss many details of the alleged threat but said it was “an intelligence based assessment” that drove the decision to target Soleimani.

In a tweet, Trump said Soleimani had “killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more”, but did not elaborate.

The attack also killed top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani.

It followed a sharp increase in longrunning U.S.-Iranian hostilities last week when pro-Iranian militiamen attacked the U.S. embassy in Iraq following a U.S. air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.

Iraq’s prime minister said that with Friday’s attack Washington had violated a deal for keeping U.S. troops in his country.

CONCERN OVER ESCALATION

Israel put its army on high alert and U.S. allies in Europe including Britain, France and Germany voiced concerns about an escalation in tensions.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Soleimani was killed in a drone strike. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said he died in an attack by U.S. helicopters.

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad urged all American citizens to depart Iraq immediately.

Dozens of U.S. citizens working for foreign oil companies in the southern city of Basra were leaving the country. Iraqi officials said the evacuations would not affect output and exports were unaffected.

Oil prices jumped more than $3 a barrel over concern about disruption to Middle East supplies.

Khamenei said harsh revenge awaited the “criminals” who killed Soleimani and said his death would double resistance against the United States and Israel.

In statements on state media, he called for three days of national mourning and appointed Soleimani’s deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, to replace him as Quds Force head.

‘STICK OF DYNAMITE’

Trump critics called the operation reckless.

“President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” said former Vice President Joe Biden, a contender in this year’s U.S. presidential election.

As leader of the Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Guards, Soleimani had a key role in fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Over two decades he was at the forefront of projecting the Islamic Republic’s military influence across the Middle East, acquiring celebrity status at home and abroad.

President Hassan Rouhani said the assassination would make Iran more decisive in resisting the United States, while the Revolutionary Guards said anti-U.S. forces would exact revenge across the Muslim world.

Hundreds of Iranians marched toward Khamenei’s compound in central Tehran to convey their condolences.

“I am not a pro-regime person but I liked Soleimani. He was brave and he loved Iran, I am very sorry for our loss,” said housewife Mina Khosrozadeh in Tehran.

In Soleimani’s hometown, Kerman, people wearing black gathered in front of his father’s house, crying as they listened to a recitation of verses from the Koran.

“Heroes never die. It cannot be true. Qassem Soleimani will always be alive,” said Mohammad Reza Seraj, a teacher.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned the killings as an act of aggression that breached Iraq’s sovereignty and would lead to war.

Israel has long seen Soleimani as a major threat and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the U.S. action. Israeli Army Radio said the military was on heightened alert.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense called the killing a “short-sighted” step that would lead to escalations in the region.

PREVIOUS ATTACKS

The slain commander’s Quds Force, along with paramilitary proxies from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces grouping of Iran-backed militias – battle-hardened militias armed with missiles – has ample means to respond.

In September, U.S. officials blamed Iran for a missile and drone attack on oil plants of Saudi energy giant Saudi Aramco. Washington also blamed Tehran for earlier raids on Gulf shipping.

Iran has denied responsibility for the strikes and accused Washington of warmongering by reimposing crippling sanctions on Iran’s main export, oil, in order to force Tehran to renegotiate a deal to freeze its nuclear activities.

Soleimani had survived several assassination attempts by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past two decades.

The Quds Force, tasked with operating beyond Iran’s borders, shored up support for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad when he looked close to defeat in the civil war raging since 2011 and also helped militias defeat Islamic State in Iraq.

Soleimani became head of the force in 1998, after which he quietly strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria’s government and Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali, Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert and Mary Milliken in Washington, Parisa Hafezi and Michael Georgy in Dubai, Maha El Dahan in Baghdad, Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem, Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Writing by Samia Nakhoul and Frances Kerry; Editing by Robert Birsel, Raju Gopalakrishnan, Mike Collett-White, William Maclean)

Iran’s Soleimani and Iraq’s Muhandis killed in U.S. air strike: militia spokesman

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed early on Friday in an air strike on their convoy at Baghdad airport, an Iraqi militia spokesman told Reuters.

“The American and Israeli enemy is responsible for killing the mujahideen Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani,” said Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces umbrella grouping of Iran-backed militias.

Strikes had been carried out against two targets linked to Iran in Baghdad on Thursday, U.S. officials told Reuters. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to give any further details.

Iraqi paramilitary groups said on Friday that three rockets hit Baghdad International Airport, killing five members of Iraqi paramilitary groups and two “guests.”

The rockets landed near the air cargo terminal, burning two vehicles, killing and injuring several people.

Soleimani, who has led the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guards and has had a key role in fighting in Syria and Iraq, acquired celebrity status at home and abroad.

He was instrumental in the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East, which the United States and Tehran’s regional foes Saudi Arabia and Israel have struggled to keep in check.

He survived several assassination attempts against him by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past two decades.

Soleimani’s Quds Force, tasked with carrying out operations beyond Iran’s borders, shored up support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when he looked close to defeat in the civil war raging since 2011 and also helped militiamen defeat Islamic State in Iraq.

Soleimani became head of the Quds Force in 1998, a position in which he kept a low profile for years while he strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein and Samia Nakhoul; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Gaza rocket sends Netanyahu to shelter during campaign rally: TV

ASHKELON, Israel (Reuters) – A rocket launched from the Gaza Strip at a southern Israeli city on Wednesday as it hosted a campaign rally by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prompted him to take shelter briefly before resuming the event, Israeli TV stations reported.

The Israeli military confirmed the launch against Ashkelon, which is 12 km (7.5 miles) from the coastal Palestinian enclave, and said the rocket was shot down by an Iron Dome air defense interceptor.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility in Gaza, which is under the control of Hamas Islamists and where a smaller armed faction, Islamic Jihad, exchanged fire with Israel during a two-day surge of violence last month.

Israeli TV stations showed Netanyahu, who is campaigning to keep the helm of the conservative Likud party in an internal election on Thursday, being escorted off a stage by bodyguards. The reports said he was taken to a shelter after sirens sounded.

It was the second such incident after a September appearance by Netanyahu in the nearby town of Ashdod was briefly disrupted by a rocket siren.

Israel sparked the November fighting in Gaza by assassinating Baha Abu Al-Atta, an Islamic Jihad commander it accused of ordering the launch against Ashdod.

“He (Al-Atta) is no longer around,” a video circulated on social media showed a smiling Netanyahu saying after he retook the stage in Ashkelon, to cheers from onlookers.

In a veiled threat to retaliate for Wednesday’s attack, he added: “Whoever tried to make an impression just now should pack his bags.”

While Netanyahu is widely expected to retain Likud’s leadership, he faces a tough battle ahead of a March general election in Israel – its third in a year, after he and his centrist rival Benny Gantz failed to secure majorities in two previous ballots. Netanyahu’s standing has been dented by an indictment on corruption charges that he denies.

Netanyahu’s failure to stem attacks from Gaza has been invoked by his political rivals.

“The situation in which Israeli citizens live at the mercy of terrorists and the prime minister of Israel is unable to tour parts of his country is a badge of shame on the security policy in the south – and a loss of deterrence that no sovereign country can accept,” Gantz, a former military chief, said in a statement on Wednesday.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Dan Grebler)

Carols and bells in Bethlehem as Christmas draws near

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) – Christmas cheer rang out through Bethlehem’s Manger Square on Monday as pilgrims and worshippers flocked to the city revered as Jesus’s birthplace and locals made final preparations for this year’s festivities.

Children dressed as Santa Claus sang carols and rang bells during a Christmas-themed show at the College des Freres, which sits in the biblical city’s central market where holiday decorations and wooden nativity scenes line the narrow alleys.

The main attractions in Bethlehem are the 4th-century Church of the Nativity, built over a grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus was born, and the 16-metre (52-foot) Christmas tree in Manger Square.

On Tuesday – Christmas Eve – the acting Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, will lead a procession from Jerusalem to nearby Bethlehem and later celebrate Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity, squeezing through its narrow sandstone entrance.

Bethlehem’s Christmas season lasts through the Eastern Orthodox celebration on Jan. 7 to Armenian Christmas on Jan. 18.

The season offers measured cheer for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city, which is separated from nearby Jerusalem by a towering Israeli concrete military barrier.

Bethlehem is enjoying its busiest tourist year in two decades, with foreign pilgrims coming in large numbers, taking advantage of a relative lull in Israeli-Palestinian tension.

Israel said on Sunday it would allow Christians in the Palestinian Gaza Strip to visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem at Christmas, reversing an earlier decision not to issue them permits.

(Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israeli parties agree on March 2 election if no government formed

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s two biggest parties agreed on Monday on a March 2 election date, barring a last-minute power-sharing deal, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fighting for political survival under criminal indictment.

A 21-day period in which parliament can nominate a legislator with majority support to try to put together a ruling coalition expires at 2200 GMT on Wednesday, triggering the legislature’s dissolution and an election within 90 days.

It would be Israel’s third national ballot in less than a year. Recent opinion polls have predicted no dramatic shifts among voters since inconclusive elections in April and September.

Neither Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party nor the centrist Blue and White party led by his main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, won enough seats in parliament for a governing majority in the previous two contests.

Both men were delegated the task of forming a coalition, but failed, throwing the ball into parliament’s court. Their parties have been deadlocked in talks on a “unity” administration in which Netanyahu and Gantz would take turns as prime minister.

The two parties, which disagree over which man would serve first and for how long, announced they had agreed on the March 2 election date. The date needs parliament’s approval but the two parties dominate the assembly so it is sure to pass.

The political disarray and a long-running corruption investigation have threatened to curtail Netanyahu’s decade-long hold on power. Last month, Netanyahu, 70, was charged with bribery, breach of trust and fraud.

Denying any wrongdoing, he has accused Israel’s legal authorities of attempting a “coup” aimed at ousting a popular right-wing leader. Critics alleged that Netanyahu was trying to undermine the rule of law and set an election campaign theme portraying himself as the victim of “deep state” conspiracy.

As prime minister, Netanyahu is under no legal obligation to resign following the indictment. A caretaker premier remains in the post until a new government is formed – a process that could stretch months past a March ballot if coalition-building is taken into account.

Before the national poll, Netanyahu would face an internal Likud leadership election. No date has been announced and only one challenger has emerged, former cabinet minister Gideon Saar, with no signs of any broad party revolt to oust Netanyahu.

In a speech on Sunday, Netanyahu said he hoped to avoid another election, “but if one is forced upon us, we will win big.”

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Prosecution in Israel lines up over 300 witnesses in Netanyahu case

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An indictment submitted to Israel’s parliament on Monday against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu names more than 300 prosecution witnesses, including wealthy friends and former aides, in three graft cases against him.

By formally sending the indictment to the legislature, after announcing charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud on Nov. 21, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit set the clock ticking on a 30-day period in which Netanyahu can seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Such protection seems unlikely, with Israeli politics in disarray after inconclusive elections in April and September and the failure of Netanyahu and his main challenger, Benny Gantz, to secure a ruling majority in the legislature.

Netanyahu, in office for the past decade, has denied any wrongdoing, saying he is a victim of an attempted “coup” waged by legal authorities trying to unseat a popular right-wing leader.

As prime minister, he is under no legal obligation to resign after being charged. No date has been set for the opening of the trial, with three judges presiding in Jerusalem District Court.

The indictment submitted to parliament listed 333 witnesses for the prosecution. Legal experts said the long roster meant proceedings could go on for years.

They include U.S. casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, Australian billionaire James Packer and retired Israeli security chiefs, and several former aides who will be state witnesses against him.

Netanyahu poured scorn on the length of the witness list.

“When an accusation is true, you don’t need 333 witnesses,” he wrote on Twitter. “When the accusation is untrue, not even 333 witnesses will help.”

TALKS DEADLOCKED

In one case, Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully requesting and accepting expensive gifts, including champagne and cigars, from Milchan and Packer. Neither has been charged with any wrongdoing.

Another case focuses on allegations that Netanyahu promised the owner of Israel’s best-selling newspaper to push for regulations on its main competitor, owned by Adelson.

Netanyahu also is accused of granting regulatory favors worth about 1.8 billion shekels ($500 million) to Bezeq Telecom Israel <BEZQ.TA> in return for positive coverage on a website owned by its former chairman.

Talks between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party on a “national unity” government are deadlocked.

If no agreement is reached within 10 days – the end of a three-week period in which legislators can nominate a candidate to try to form a government – Israel is likely to hold a new election.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Netanyahu’s Likud to hold party leadership vote: challenger

By Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party will hold a leadership vote, a Likud challenger said on Sunday, as pressure mounted on the veteran leader to step aside after his indictment on corruption charges.

Israeli media reported the Likud primary would be held in six weeks. A party spokesman was not reachable to confirm the timeline.

Gideon Saar, a Likud lawmaker who has challenged Netanyahu, wrote on Twitter that he “welcomes the prime minister’s agreement to hold primaries for party leadership.”

Netanyahu’s indictment last Thursday came amid political disarray in Israel, after neither Netanyahu nor his main challenger in the general election, centrist Benny Gantz, secured a majority in parliament in April and September votes.

Netanyahu has denied the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust and said he would stay in office and defend himself.

The four-term conservative leader projected business as usual on Sunday, touring the country’s northern frontier and ramping up rhetoric about Iranian threats.

Israel’s Supreme Court dismissed a petition by a watchdog group to force Netanyahu to step aside.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel had said in its court filing that the first criminal charges against a sitting prime minister constituted “the crossing of a red line and a grave blow to public trust in ruling institutions”.

The court dismissed the petition to force Netanyahu to resign or temporarily recuse himself from office. It said the watchdog had not yet exhausted other avenues, such as petitioning Netanyahu directly and Israel’s attorney general.

For his part, Netanyahu kept his focus on security and toured the Golan Heights with top military brass.

“I am doing everything needed to carry out government work, Cabinet work … in all necessary ways, to ensure the security of the citizens of Israel and the things that are crucial for Israel,” he said in a video statement.

He reiterated concerns over Iran’s attempt to entrench itself militarily in a number of Middle East countries and said Israel “will act to prevent Iran’s attempt to make Iraq and Yemen bases for rocket and missile launches against Israel.”

POLITICAL CHALLENGE

But Israeli news coverage remained focused on the political challenge. Commentators said other court petitions could follow.

Gantz’s mandate to form a government – after an unsuccessful attempt by Netanyahu to do so – expired on Wednesday. The next day, Israel’s president declared a three-week period in which lawmakers can nominate one of their own to try to put together a ruling coalition.

Should that fail, a new election – Israel’s third in a year – will be triggered.

Netanyahu’s hope of securing that parliamentary nomination was challenged by Saar.

“There is only one way in which we can save the country, extricate it from the crisis and ensure the Likud’s continued rule – and that is if we go to snap primaries today, within these 21 days,” Saar told Israel’s Channel 12 television.

A less adversarial proposal was launched by a second Likud lawmaker, Nir Barkat, who called for nominating a deputy to Netanyahu who would take his place should he be forced to take a leave of absence.

Saar previously said he would consider running for the top Likud slot.

While voicing appreciation for Netanyahu’s record-long term and noting he was innocent until proven otherwise, Saar criticised the premier’s attempts to cast his criminal prosecution as a “coup attempt” involving police, prosecutors and the media.

“Not only is it wrong to say that, it’s also irresponsible to say that. It’s completely out of touch,” Saar said.

The Likud party spokesman earlier in the day dismissed the challenge.

“It is sad to see that while Prime Minister Netanyahu keeps Israel safe on all fronts and works to preserve Likud rule, Gideon Saar, as is his wont, is displaying zero loyalty and maximum subversion,” the spokesman said.

(Reporting by Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jane Merriman and Peter Cooney)

Israel’s Netanyahu faces calls to quit but is defiant in crisis

By Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced calls to resign over a corruption scandal on Friday, as senior government colleagues publicly declared support after some signs of cracks in party loyalty.

Netanyahu said he would not quit after he was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust by Israel’s attorney general on Thursday night.

The 70-year-old right-wing Likud Party leader denies all wrongdoing and denounced the indictment – the first against a sitting Israeli prime minister – as an “attempted coup.”

But his ability to lead a country mired in political crisis, after two inconclusive elections this year that failed to produce a government, is being questioned.

The centrist Blue and White Party headed by Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz, issued a statement calling on him to “immediately resign from all ministerial positions in the government”.

The party – which has 33 of parliament’s 120 seats to Likud’s 32 – said its lawyers had formally approached the prime minister and attorney general’s offices saying it was “imperative” that Netanyahu step down.

Under Israeli law, as prime minister he is under no obligation to do so. But with Israel heading towards a likely third election in less than a year, Netanyahu could soon find himself in the difficult position of trying to win an election while preparing to be prosecuted.

The support of his Likud party colleagues is likely to be crucial to Netanyahu’s chances of staying in power.

Two Likud lawmakers publicly broached holding a party leadership contest on Thursday, but even such mild expressions of disloyalty upset loyalists.

Senior ministers issued public statements declaring their support, and Justice Minister Amir Ohana said he was proud of his fellow Likud parliamentarians for standing by Netanyahu, adding pointedly: “Except for two of them.”

Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist coalition partner Bezalel Smotrich, the transport minister, also offered sympathy for Netanyahu over the charges against him, announced by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday.

Smotrich said in a tweet that planned street protests in support of the prime minister were aimed at preventing “a predatory, violent and dangerous judicial dictatorship”.

After a national televised address on Thursday night Netanyahu himself kept a low profile on Friday, posting a tweet with heart and an Israeli flag emojis saying: “Thank you for your support and love. Shabbat Shalom.”

ELECTION SCHEDULE

But Israel’s election schedule could work against Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister after 10 successive years in power plus three years in office in the 1990s.

President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday set a three-week deadline for lawmakers to nominate a new candidate from their own ranks to try to form a new government after Netanyahu and Gantz both failed to do after April and September elections.

If that also fails to produce a government, an election will be triggered in three months.

A source close to Rivlin said he expected appeals to disqualify Netanyahu as a candidate because of the indictment. If the president does so, Netanyahu could be ejected by Likud.

“Netanyahu’s great fear is that, amid the extraordinary constitutional crisis has been created, and amid the political and legal synchronization, he will emerge as the only member of parliament who cannot do this (form a government),” wrote Tal Shalev, political commentator for Israel’s Walla news site.

Two of the three cases involve news media outlets whose bosses allegedly received inducements from Netanyahu in return for more favourable coverage on his policies and personal conduct.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Tova Cohen and Nidal al-Mughrabi. Editing by XX)