With charges looming, could Israel's 'King Bibi' be toppled?

Israel's attorney general is recommending bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The move instantly changes the longtime leader's fortunes as Israelis prepare to go to the polls in early April.

Israel's AG is seeking an indictment against longtime leader Benjamin Netanyahu — one month before an election

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is shown at his residence in Jerusalem, before speaking on Israeli TV. (Reuters)

For years now, even as police probed possible corruption charges, Israel's unflappable prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appeared untouchable.

But Netanyahu now faces the most serious threat in his decade of political dominance, after Israel's attorney general announced his intention Thursday to lay fraud charges against the prime minister in three corruption investigations.

And it has his political opponents feeling emboldened that "King Bibi," as some of his supporters have taken to calling him, can perhaps be toppled when Israelis vote in upcoming parliamentary elections.

Political scientist Reuven Hazan, of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, likened the potential charges to a "hand grenade" aimed straight at the heart of the April 9 vote.

"We've never been in a situation where, in the midst of an election campaign that has turned into a close race, we have one of the party leaders indicted," Hazan told CBC News. "So how the voters will react is a complete unknown."

Netanyahu will challenge the charges in a hearing expected after the election, after which a final decision on indictment will be made. If the case does move forward, he would be the first sitting Israeli prime minister to be indicted.

Netanyahu is praised by many Israelis for having strong ties with world leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump. (Reuters)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has accused Netanyahu of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three cases that have been under investigation for two years.

It's alleged that the prime minister, in one of the cases, accepted expensive gifts — including jewelry, champagne and cigars — from a Hollywood film producer born in Israel, in exchange for tax breaks for the mogul.

In the other two cases, Netanyahu is accused of trying to secure more favourable coverage in the media, with investigators saying that one popular news website downplayed or altered critical reports about the prime minister.

Netanyahu repeated his long-standing insistence that he is the victim of a left-wing "witch hunt," again denying any wrongdoing in a television address on Thursday night.

"I tell you, citizens of Israel, this whole tower of cards will collapse," he said. "I intend to serve as your prime minister for many years. But it depends on you. Not on the commentators and TV studios and articles. It depends only on you."

His political opponents, however, have wasted little time in calling on Netanyahu to resign. Banners proclaiming him the country's "crime minister" have begun to appear at political rallies organized by Israel's opposition parties.

A demonstration calling for Netanyahu to step down was held in Tel Aviv earlier this month. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Two heads better than one?

With just over 40 days until the election, Israeli voters will be faced with a now-familiar choice: re-electing a prime minister who has governed for nearly 13 years over two stints, or trying a newer face.

Or two.

A pair of centrists, Benny Gantz, a former top general, and Yair Lapid, an ex-finance minister, have teamed up to in a bid to replace the right-wing Netanyahu. Establishing the Blue and White party named for the colours of the Israeli flag, they agreed to take turns as prime minister, if elected.

The move immediately changed the dynamic of the upcoming vote. Many Israeli voters have for years felt there is no credible alternative to Netanyahu, who is often seen as strong on security and in relations with world leaders — most notably U.S. President Donald Trump.

Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid joined forced and formally announced the formation of their new party, Blue and White, last week in Tel Aviv. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

But Gantz, who served as chief of staff in Israel's military from 2011 to 2015, has won praise for a tough stance against the country's longtime regional foe Iran. And Lapid, with a command of English that nearly rivals Netanyahu, is seen a suitable representative on the international stage.

With these new corruption charges now hanging over his head, some Israeli voters may be swayed to deny Netanyahu the prize of becoming Israel's longest-serving prime minister — an honour currently held by founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion.

No one party will win a majority in the upcoming election, thanks to Israel's multiparty democracy. A coalition would be needed to cross the 61-seat threshold required to form a government. But a poll taken before the attorney general's announcement for the Times of Israel put the Blue and White party ahead with 44 seats, compared to 25 for Netanyahu's Likud party.

Word of possible charges against Netanyahu has also revived talk about Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister jailed for sixteen months on corruption charges. Olmert — who was released from prison in 2017 — resigned before charges were laid against him.

Criminal charges against a sitting leader would be "a blemish" on the office of prime minister, said Amnon Aran, a lecturer in international politics at City University of London.

"But on the other hand, I think it does [put] in a very positive light, the Israeli judiciary … and the legal system as well."


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.