Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu closer to being indicted on charges of bribery, fraud

Israel's attorney general on Thursday recommended indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for bribery and breach of trust in a series of corruption cases, a momentous move that shook up Israel's election campaign and could spell the end of the prime minister's illustrious political career.

Netanyahu calls the accusations 'outrageous' and motivated by opponents on the left

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attacked the substance of the allegations and timing of the attorney general's announcement in a nationally televised address from Jerusalem on Thursday. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Israel's attorney general on Thursday recommended indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for bribery and breach of trust in a series of corruption cases, a momentous move that shook up Israel's election campaign and could spell the end of the prime minister's illustrious political career.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his decision after more than two years of intense investigations and deliberations.

Police had recommended indicting Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three different cases that ranged from accepting expensive gifts from wealthy allies to allegedly trading influence for more favourable press coverage.

"The attorney general has reached his decision after thoroughly examining the evidence," his statement said.

The final decision on indictment will only take place after a hearing, where Netanyahu is given the opportunity to defend himself. That process is expected to take many months and be completed long after the April 9 elections.

But the recommendations immediately cast a cloud over the campaign and Netanyahu's future.

An indictment would mark the first time in Israeli history that a sitting prime minister has been charged with a crime. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert served time in prison for corruption but had already resigned by the time he was charged.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and calls the various allegations a media-orchestrated witch hunt aimed at removing him from office. He has vowed to carry on in the campaign, 40 days before Israelis go to the polls.

Netanyahu went on nationwide television Thursday night, characterizing the indictments as politically motivated.

Netanyahu called the timing of the announcement, six weeks ahead of elections, "outrageous" and accused his leftist opponents of carrying out an "unprecedented witch hunt."

"The pressure of the left worked," he said.

He called the accusations lies and a "blood libel" and said he would debunk them all.

Court challenge fails

In a last-ditch effort to prevent the public release of an indictment, Netanyahu's Likud party petitioned the Supreme Court to have it delayed until after the elections. But the court rejected the request Thursday afternoon, potentially clearing the way for an announcement from the attorney general.

Despite opposition calls for Netanyahu to step down, Likud and his other nationalist coalition partners have lined up behind him thus far, all but ruling out sitting in a government led by his primary opponent, retired military chief Benny Gantz.

Gantz, whose campaign has focused heavily on Netanyahu's character, late Thursday called on Netanyahu to resign immediately to deal with his legal problems. 
Israel's Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is shown with Netanyahu in 2015 when he served as the prime minister's cabinet secretary. (Gail Tibbon/Reuters)

He said Israel could not afford to have a "part-time prime minister."

"Let's imagine our reality when the prime minister needs to divide his time between court and dealing with the critical issues facing the state of Israel," he said. 

Even before Thursday's announcement, Netanyahu's campaign had shown signs of trouble. 

The alliance formed by Gantz and Yair Lapid, another centrist leader, has been welcomed by voters. Their "Blue and White" alliance enjoys a slight lead in opinion polls, making them the first credible threat to Netanyahu's decade-long rule.

'He needs to resign'

Lapid also called on Netanyahu to step down.

"This is a sad day for the state of Israel," he said. "If Netanyahu loves the state of Israel, as he always says he does, then he needs to do what's best for the country. He needs to resign immediately."

While Israeli prime ministers are not required by law to resign if charged, the prospect of a prime minister standing trial while simultaneously running the country would be unchartered territory.

Mandelblit's decision could either galvanize Netanyahu's hardline supporters who see him as a victim of an overzealous prosecution or turn more moderate backers against him who have tired of his lengthy rule tainted by long-standing accusations of corruption and hedonism.

Either way, the upcoming elections appear to be morphing into a referendum on Netanyahu as he seeks to become the longest-serving premier in Israeli history. Netanyahu has been prime minister since 2009 and served a previous term between 1996 and 1999.

U.S. President Donald Trump, with whom Netanyahu has forged a close connection, offered the Israeli leader a boost.

"I just think he's been a great prime minister and I don't know about his difficulty but you tell me something people have been hearing about, but I don't know about that," he said in response to a question in Hanoi, where he was holding a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

"I can say this: that he's done a great job as prime minister. He's tough, he's smart, he's strong," Trump said.

Allegations involving gifts, benefits

Netanyahu rushed back Wednesday from a diplomatic mission to Moscow, and a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, to prepare for his expected rebuttal to the accusations on Thursday.

The most serious allegations against Netanyahu involve his relationship with Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Israel's telecom giant Bezeq.

Mandelblit recommended a bribery charge in the case based on evidence collected that confidants of Netanyahu promoted regulatory changes worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Bezeq.

Sara Netanyahu was questioned in one of the investigations and charged, but the charge was eventually dropped. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)

In exchange, they believe Netanyahu used his connections with Elovitch to receive positive press coverage on Bezeq's popular subsidiary news site Walla. Police have said their investigation concluded that Netanyahu and Elovitch engaged in a "bribe-based relationship."

A related charge against Netanyahu's wife, Sara, was dropped.

Mandelblit's statement said there was a unanimous opinion among investigators that the relationship between Netanyahu and the Elovitches constituted bribery.

"Everyone agreed there was enough evidence to prove that benefits were given to Netanyahu by Elovitch and his wife Iris Elovitch and were taken by Netanyahu in return for actions he took as part of his job," it said.

Mandelblit's office said the timing of Netanyahu's hearing would be set in the near future in co-ordination with the prime minister's lawyers.