Israel’s longtime leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday became the nation’s first sitting prime minister to be indicted after he was charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in connection with three separate corruption cases.
The charges were announced by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and come as Israel is locked in political stalemate following inconclusive elections in April and September. A third election in under a year may be on the verge of being called.
The indictment alleges Netanyahu accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars of champagne and cigars from wealthy businessmen and was willing to trade favors with a newspaper publisher and telecom magnate for positive coverage in the press.
“Law enforcement is not a choice. It is not a matter of left or right. It’s not a matter of politics,” Mandelblit said, in his announcement of the indictment.
Netanyahu denies all the charges and has characterized the investigations into his alleged activities as a “witch hunt.” The indictment does not require him to resign.
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In an echo of President Donald Trump’s dismissal of the impeachment inquiry over pressure he applied to Ukraine to investigate his Democratic political rival Joe Biden, Netanyahu has lashed out at media, police, prosecutors and the justice system.
He described Thursday’s indictment as an attempted “coup.”
Netanyahu is a former commando whose more than 13 years in office has been defined by repeated promises to keep Israel secure and prosperous while sidelining Palestinians. While he has said that he will not step down, he could see his dominance of the country’s polarized politics abruptly end in any new election.
Among major industrialized powers, only Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and German leader Angela Merkel have led for longer.
After the inconclusive election in September, both Netanyahu and his chief rival, Benny Gantz, a former head of the Israel Defense Forces, have failed to form a majority coalition in parliament. It is the first time in the nation’s history this has happened. The country now has 21 days in which any member of parliament can try to rally a 61-member majority to become prime minister. If that fails, new elections will be held.
Netanyahu wants to remain in office to fight the charges because Israeli law permits him to use his office to push parliament to grant him immunity from prosecution.
The most serious charges against him relate to the so-called “Case 4000.” In that, Netanyahu is accused of passing regulations that gave his friend, telecom magnate Shaul Elovitch, benefits worth over $250 million to his company Bezeq. In return, Bezeq’s news site, Walla, published favorable articles about Netanyahu and his family.
Two close aides to Netanyahu turned state’s witnesses and testified against him.
The indictment also said that Netanyahu’s gifts of champagne from billionaires Arnon Milchan and James Packer “turned into a sort of supply line.” The indictment said Netanyahu assisted Milchan, a Hollywood mogul, in extending his U.S. visa. It was not clear what, if anything, Packer, who is Australian, received in return.
If elections are held, polls are predicting a similar deadlock, signaling additional months of uncertainty. But that could now change with Netanyahu’s indictment. A poll carried out last month by the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, found that 65% of Israelis thought Netanyahu should resign as head of his Likud party if indicted; 24% were opposed. The poll had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
“If he has but a drop of honor left, he would resign tonight,” said Stav Shaffir, a lawmaker with the liberal Democratic Union, an opposition party.
There was no immediate reaction from the White House.
Netanyahu has tried to capitalize on his close relationship with Trump, watching with approval as the U.S. president has upended decades of U.S. policy on Israel that has tried to avoid appearing partisan over Israel’s long-simmering dispute with Palestinians.
Trump has relocated the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the holy city that Palestinians claim as part of their future capital. He withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement. While most western powers view Iran’s nuclear activities as a considerable threat, for Israel, its proximity to the Islamic Republic and Tehran’s periodic vows to “annihilate” the Jewish state mean that Iran is a daily existential worry.
Trump has also overlooked Jewish settlement expansion on land claimed by Palestinians and on Monday his secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, abruptly announced that the U.S. would be shifting its position, in place since 1978, on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, no longer viewing them as inconsistent with international law.
Contributing: Associated Press