Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 June 2019

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be indicted on corruption charges

He is the first sitting Prime Minister in the country's history to be charged

Israel’s attorney general on Thursday confirmed his intention to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in three separate corruption cases, a stunning decision that represents the first time in the country’s history that a sitting premier has been told he faces criminal charges.

In a Justice Ministry statement, Avichai Mandelblit, once a Netanyahu ally, confirmed that he will charge Israel’s political stalwart with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in cases relating to bribes for positive coverage, the acceptance of gifts from billionaire friends and the promotion of regulation favourable to allies in the business world.

The decision throws the longtime Israeli leader’s political future into doubt, as well as his bid to become the country’s longest-serving premier, which he will achieve if he survives in his position until November. It is also dramatically shook Israeli politics less than six weeks before an early election slated as a referendum on Mr Netanyahu’s legacy and called by him as he became mired in an array of legal troubles.

Mr Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and called a press conference for Thursday evening where he protested his innocence. He claimed that he is the victim of an "unprecedented" political witch-hunt aimed at influencing the April 9 election and said there was no basis to the corruption charges levelled against him.

He reiterated his prediction that the charges against him would collapse like "a house of cards" and said the indictments were only brought before him because "the left-wing pressure has succeeded".

The Israeli leader is entitled to a hearing to challenge the charges, which is likely to take place after the vote.

The evening announcement came despite a last-ditch appeal by Mr Netanyahu’s Likud Party to the Supreme Court to delay the indictment until after the election and followed months of mounting anticipation. Both the police and state prosecutor’s office had recommended indictments and three key sources turned state’s witness.

The hearing will be the first step in another drawn out judicial process. But the development is significant both politically for Israel and personally for Israel’s “King Bibi,” as he’s known.

Mr Netanyahu is now in uncharted territory as the first Israeli prime minister to run and to rule while under indictment. Polls show Mr Netanyahu and his extreme-right coalitions losing significant seats – and therefore the prime ministry – to the leading centrist coalition if indicted. But Mr Netanyahu is also a charismatic fighter who thrives when playing the underdog. By law, he doesn’t have to step down when indicted and the Likud party has pledged to stand by him.

Over the years, Mr Netanyahu has deftly dismissed any criticism of his politics and alleged corruption as smears by a traitorous left and biased media – a mantra that plays well with his large right-wing and religious nationalist base and with illiberal allies like US President Donald Trump.

Back in December, Mr Netanyahu announced early elections in attempt to get ahead of the looming indictment. Last week, he postponed a trip to Moscow to cement an alliance with a fringe party dubbed “the KKK of Israel” and secure more right-wing votes before April’s election. Yesterday, though, Mr Netanyahu left his rescheduled meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin early to rush home amid reports charges were coming.

Now back in Israel, the coming weeks will determine whether Israeli voters will gamble on an indicted leader that they know – or close the Netanyahu chapter, at least for now.

“Netanyahu will now be prime minister on notice,” tweeted Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli journalist and biographer of Mr Netanyahu. “Netanyahu will shrug it off and say nothing has changed. But we'll be in uncharted waters and no one has any idea how being a prime minister under notice of indictment will effect Netanyahu and his government.”

Mr Netanyahu in remarks to Israeli media yesterday dismissed the bribery charges as “absurd” and warned that the prosecutors’ “house of cards will soon collapse”.

In recent weeks he’s been doubling down on social media posts dismissing his key opponent from the center, former Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, as a weak leftist that will compromise on Israel’s security. Likud has been pushing out online ads accusing the indictment’s timing as a conspiracy between the left and media. In the party’s appeal to the Supreme Court, they argued the indictment was engineered by “leftist bullies… with the intention of bringing to the downfall of the right-wing government”.

A new poll by Israel’s Times of Israel, however, projected that Mr Netanyahu’s Likud would lose four parliament seats in elections if indicted, while the newly formed centrist Blue and White party, co-led by Mr Gantz, would see a major jump in seats, putting it in first place to form the ruling coalition. Overall, over a quarter of likely Likud voters said they wouldn’t vote for the party if Mr Netanyahu is indicted.

Still, in the last elections in 2015, polls also predicted that Mr Netanyahu would lose – and instead he won, infamously on election day warning that the “droves of Arabs… bused to the polling stations by left-wing NGOs”. Another recent poll found very high mistrust in the police, Attorney General, and the corruption cases among ultra-orthodox, religious-Zionist and Likud voters.

Mr Netanyahu also maintains his supporters in high places. Yesterday, Mr Trump reiterated his alliance with the prime minister, calling him a “great prime minister… tough, smart, strong”. Mr Netanyahu in turn tweeted out, “Thank you for supporting me, my friend President Trump!”

The last Israeli prime minister facing corruption charges, Ehud Olmert, voluntarily stepped down prior to being indicted after losing his party’s support.

Instead, Netanyahu’s supporters are doubling down on his defence, in what’s perhaps a harbinger for how to fight corruption charges for other world leaders.

"I'm very worried for freedom of the press and freedom of government in Israel if they start indicting people for trying to get good coverage from the media," prominent American lawyer and Trump supporter Alan Dershowitz told Israel's Army Radio.

"I don't know of any other country that has criminalised trying to get good coverage and make that a basis of bribery or any other corruption investigation."

Updated: February 28, 2019 10:47 PM