After more than two years of intense investigations, Israel’s attorney general announced Thursday he intends to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges pending a final hearing.
The much anticipated decision comes less than two months before April 9 general elections.
“The attorney general has reached his decision after thoroughly examining the evidence,” Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said in a statement.
The final decision on indictment will only take place after a hearing, where the prime minister can defend himself. That process could take many months and be completed long after the elections.
If the decision is formalized it would be the first time a sitting Israeli 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.
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.
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 charges on Thursday.
Mendelblit dismissed a request by Netanyahu’s attorneys to delay announcing the decision until after the election, citing “the principle of equality before the law and the public’s right to know about such important decisions,” according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Netanyahu responded by accusing Mendelblit of “surrendering” to the left and the media.
The charges swirl around three separate cases:
•The first involves allegations that Netanyahu provided regulatory concessions to Shaul Elovitch, controlling shareholder of Israel’s telecom giant Bezeq, in exchange for favorable coverage from the group’s news website.
•The second involves allegations of fraud and breach of trust for allegedly agreeing to trade favorable coverage from Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Amon MJozaes for backing legislation to hurt the rival newspaper Israel Hayhom, which is owned by American gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson.
•The third case involves allegations that Netanyahu accepted gifts from wealthy business figures, including Hollywood mogul Amon Milchan, in return for political favors.
Police had already recommended indicting Netanyahu in the three cases. Police say they believe there is sufficient evidence to charge Netanyahu and his wife Sara with accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust. They also recommended charges be brought against Elovitch, members of his family and members of his Bezeq management team.
Among the 140 witnesses, including journalists, who have given evidence in the case are five current or former government ministers.
Netanyahu, who is deadlocked in the polls, has denied any wrongdoing and calls the allegations an attempt by the media to remove him from office.
In proclaiming his innocence, Netanyahu has said it is acceptable to receive gifts from friends and, regarding Milchan, he said he has made some decisions against the Israeli billionaire’s interest, Haaretz reports.
In addition, he said there was no intention of going through with any deal with the Yedioth Ahmonoth, and argues that favorable coverage by a media outlet is not bribery.
The petition by Netanyahu’s Likud party to the Supreme Court to have the attorney general’s decision delayed until after the election had been rejected Thursday afternoon, clearing the way for Mandelblit’s announcement.
Despite opposition calls for Netanyahu to step down, Likud and other nationalist coalition partners have lined up behind him, all but ruling out sitting in a government led by his primary opponent, retired military chief Benny Gantz.
Mandelblit’s decision could either galvanize Netanyahu’s hard-line 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 turning into a referendum on Netanyahu as he seeks to become the longest serving premier in Israeli history. Netanyahu have been prime minister since 2009 and served a previous term between 1996 and 1999.
President Donald Trump, with whom Netanyahu has forged a close connection, offered the Israeli leader a boost ahead of the expected announcement.
“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 the leader of North Korea.
“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.
Alan Dershowitz, a prominent American lawyer, has come to Netanyahu’s defense, publishing an open letter to Mandelblit in which he warns that an indictment against the prime minister ahead of elections would undermine the democratic process.
“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,” he told Israel’s Army Radio. “I don’t know of any other country that has criminalized trying to get good coverage and make that a basis of bribery or any other corruption investigation.”
Contributing: Associated Press
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