Israel’s Attorney-General has recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted on corruption charges, subject to a hearing, in a dramatic move just weeks before the general election on 9 April.
While Israeli leaders have in the past stepped down to fight corruption charges, Netanyahu has said he is going nowhere, meaning that this will be the first time a sitting Israeli prime minister has been charged.
In recent weeks, his team has piled enormous pressure on Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit to delay any announcement until after the election. At one point the PM even called the world’s press to attention with a bizarre live TV address to the nation, in which he ranted about prosecutors and demanded evidence.
On Thursday his plan lay in ruins, as Mandelblit gave the nod for the PM to be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in several criminal cases. There will now be at least one pre-trial hearing before it proceeds to court, pending a final decision from Mandelblit, which is likely to be taken towards the end of 2019.
The ramifications of the announcement are potentially huge, with Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party neck-and-neck in the polls with an alliance led by former IDF Chief of Staff Gen. Benny Gantz and centrist politician Yair Lapid.
An increasingly desperate Netanyahu last week agreed a votes-for-power pact with two of Israel’s most fringe far-right parties, including Jewish Power, whose members worship the radical rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated the forcible deportation of non-Jews from Israel.
News of the deal went down badly among Netanyahu’s powerful supporters in the US, including influential lobby group AIPAC, which broke from tradition to criticise a sitting Israeli prime minister. Analysts soon sensed support for the PM draining away fast.
Netanyahu, 69, has maintained his innocence throughout the process, describing the investigations as “a witchhunt,” and polls have shown that Israelis either believe in his innocence or not depending on their own political leanings.
This week’s announcement has long been anticipated, however. In February last year, Israeli Police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted in two criminal cases, following a 16-month investigation, and in December they recommended he be indicted in a third.
The matter has sat with Mandelblit ever since.
Case 1000 involves gifts from foreign billionaires in return for favours, while Case 2000 alleges that Netanyahu colluded with one newspaper to hamstring a competitor in return for favourable coverage.
Case 4000, considered the most damaging, alleges that Netanyahu offered to approve favourable laws to benefit Shaul Elovitch, the owner of telecoms company Bezeq, in exchange for positive media coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news website.
Analysts at UK-Israel think tank BICOM said this week that Netanyahu may still be best-placed to form a coalition, despite the indictment, and that he “could even utilise the announcement to brand himself a victim of media and judicial elites… this may even improve his popularity”.
However most feel it will do Netanyahu irreversible damage, given that the juiciest details gleaned from the Israeli Police investigations are still to emerge in the Israeli press – a fate journalists know to be inevitable.
Netanyahu has no intention of resigning unless he has to, which he legally doesn’t, so will still lead Likud into elections unless there is a putsch from within.
The big immediate question is whether Mandelblit will release all the documentation gathered as part of the police investigations, as would normally happen. Netanyahu’s lawyers know that the press would have a field day if he did, so this week they have been clambering to stop this from happening, for fear of its effect at the ballot box in six weeks’ time.
Beyond that, the legal process – of pre-trial hearings, final indictment decisions, trials and verdicts and appeals – is an arduous and onerous one, hence why past prime ministers have resigned to fight the charges. But Netanyahu’s lawyers may succeed in arguing that it should not come to trial. That’s what he will tell would-be coalition partners anxious about getting into bed with him now that he has been stained by an indictment.
With that in mind, all eyes will now be on his potential partners and what they say about serving in a Bibi government if he has been indicted.
Crucial to the parliamentary equations may be Moshe Kahlon, who leads centrist party Kulanu. While others have hedged their bets and fudged their answers, Kahlon has been clear that Netanyahu could not continue as PM if he had been indicted, and that Kahlon would not serve under him if he had.
With a handful of important seats, Kahlon could yet be kingmaker – or, more likely, king breaker.