EghtesadOnline: I sraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be indicted on bribery and breach of trust charges arising from three separate corruption investigations, pending a hearing, Israel's attorney general announced late Thursday.
The announcement, so close to April's general election, marks a dramatic moment in Israeli politics and is a major blow to Netanyahu as he seeks a fifth term in office.
He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, denouncing the investigations as a media-led witch-hunt. In a prime time broadcast shortly after the announcement, Netanyahu blamed the left for pressuring Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit—a Netanyahu appointee—to issue an indictment, CNN reported.
"The left understands that they will not beat me at the ballot box," Netanyahu said. "They exerted extraordinary pressure on the attorney general to issue an indictment even though there is nothing, in order to influence the elections and to crown a leftwing government."
According to Financial Tribune, Netanyahu is entitled to a hearing on the impending indictment before charges are formally laid, but that is not expected to take place until long after the election.
Under Israeli law, Netanyahu is not required to step down if he is indicted. He is only required to step down if he is convicted and that conviction is upheld through the appeals process, which could take years.
Netanyahu's main challenger in the upcoming elections, former military Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, called on him to resign after the attorney general's announcement.
In his first major speech as a candidate in February, Gantz said unequivocally, "The very thought that a prime minister can serve in Israel with an indictment is ridiculous to me. This cannot happen."
Cigars, Champagne and Corruption Claims
In the first case, known as Case 1000, Mandelblit intends to charge Netanyahu with breach of trust. Case 1000 deals with alleged gifts Netanyahu received from overseas billionaires totaling 1 million shekels (approximately $280,000), including cigars, champagne, jewelry and more.
The alleged transfers occurred between 2007 and 2016. In exchange for the gifts, investigators say Netanyahu tried to advance a tax break that would have benefited the businessmen.
In another case, known as Case 2000, Mandelblit plans to charge Netanyahu with another count of breach of trust. Case 2000 deals with alleged negotiations between Netanyahu and Arnon "Noni" Mozes, the owner of one of Israel's largest newspapers, Yedioth Ahronoth.
Investigators say Netanyahu requested more favorable coverage in exchange for limiting the circulation of Yedioth Ahronoth's largest rival, Israel HaYom, a free daily owned by rightwing mega-donor Sheldon Adelson that is viewed by critics as a Netanyahu mouthpiece.
In another case, known as Case 4000, Netanyahu faces bribery and breach of trust charges. This case is arguably the largest facing the prime minister. It deals with the relationship between Netanyahu and Israeli telecommunications firm Bezeq. Investigators say Netanyahu advanced regulatory benefits worth 1 billion shekels (approximately $280 million) to the company and its primary shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, a friend of Netanyahu.
Netanyahu and his high-powered legal team have repeatedly argued that any statement from the attorney general about the prime minister's legal status should be delayed until after the elections on April 9. Such a statement could affect the outcome of the elections, they argued, with some of Netanyahu's key political allies saying it could result in an "undemocratic" change in government.
Amir Fuchs, head of the Defending Democratic Values program at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the public has the right to know as soon as possible if there is a suspicion of criminal activity against a prime minister.
Netanyahu Rails Against Charges
Netanyahu has turned the investigations into a key election campaign issue, railing against the probes and denouncing them as a tool of the media and the left wing to try to topple his proudly rightwing government.
In public statements, live broadcasts, and on social media, Netanyahu has sought to delegitimize them ahead of the attorney general's decision.
In mid-February, Netanyahu called Case 4000 a "fabricated case" in one tweet, and followed that up hours later with another tweet.
"It is unfortunate that the pressure of the left and the media will probably cause the attorney general to rush and to announce a hearing before the elections," he wrote.
Many politicians have hammered Netanyahu on the investigations, but the attacks have done little to erode the steadfast support of his base.
Netanyahu's Likud party has consistently polled right around the 30 seats he currently has, but some polls have Likud losing seats.
Netanyahu's wife, Sara, also faces corruption charges of her own, in a separate case. She was charged last summer with fraud after an investigation in which prosecutors say she misused taxpayer dollars at the prime minister's official residence between 2009 and 2013.
Crucially, Netanyahu cannot serve as prime minister without the support of his coalition partners. Before the election was called, opposition parties had called on coalition leaders to withdraw support for Netanyahu if he was charged.
Now those coalition leaders will have to see if the attorney general's announcement changes their calculation. If they support Netanyahu and he goes down, their fate may be tied to his. But if they withdraw that support now, their collective rightwing voter base could punish them in the upcoming elections.