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Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu Indicted for Fraud, Bribery and Breach of Trust: Justice Ministry

It is the first time a sitting Israeli prime minister has been charged with a crime.

AFP

Updated:November 21, 2019, 11:38 PM IST
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Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu Indicted for Fraud, Bribery and Breach of Trust: Justice Ministry
File photo of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Jerusalem: Israel's attorney general indicted Benjamin Netanyahu on a range of corruption charges on Thursday, the justice ministry announced, potentially spelling an end to the prime minister's decades-long political career.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit "decided to file charges against the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for offences of receiving a bribe, fraud, and breach of trust", a ministry statement said.

Netanyahu, who strongly denies all the charges, becomes the first Israeli prime minister to be indicted while in office. The rightwinger, who has been in power since 2009, is Israel's longest-serving prime minister and dominates the country's political scene.

The indictment comes as Israel faces a potential third election in a year, with neither Netanyahu nor his main rival able to form a government after deadlocked elections in September.

Netanyahu is not legally required to resign until he is convicted and all appeals are exhausted, but political pressure is likely to be intense.

A close ally of US President Donald Trump, the 70-year-old may now ask the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, to grant him immunity from prosecution. The justice ministry statement said copies of the charge sheet had been sent to both Netanyahu's lawyers and the Knesset.

The charges against him range from receiving gifts worth thousands of dollars to a deal to change regulatory frameworks in favour of a media group in exchange for positive coverage.

Mandelblit is due to give a public statement, with Netanyahu expected to respond.

Netanyahu has outlived most political rivals and Hugh Lovatt, Israel-Palestine analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the indictment may still not be "the end of the story".

"Israel will now have to brace for a political roller-coaster ride over the coming months. Now more than ever Netanyahu will be fighting for his political and personal life," said Lovatt.

What are the allegations?

In February, Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery, following up on police recommendations. In May, he extended until October a deadline for Netanyahu's pre-indictment hearing but rejected a request for a 12-month delay.

Netanyahu has vehemently denied all the allegations, calling the corruption investigation a "witch-hunt" and alleging it has been motivated by his enemies' desire to force him from office.

Of the investigations against Netanyahu, the third, known as Case 4,000, is seen as the most serious. He is alleged to have negotiated with Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Israeli telecommunications giant Bezeq, to get positive coverage on his Walla! news site in exchange for policies benefiting Bezeq.

Mandelblit said in February he intended to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in this case.

Case 1,000 involves allegations Netanyahu and his family received gifts including luxury cigars, champagne and jewellery from wealthy individuals, estimated to be worth more than 700,000 shekels ($200,000, 185,000 euros), in exchange for financial or personal favours.

Another case, known as Case 2000, concerns allegations Netanyahu sought a deal with the owner of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper that would have seen it give him more favourable coverage.

'Weaker hand'

The decision is expected to have a wide-reaching impact not just on the embattled leader but on Israeli politics in general, as the country has been without a government for nearly a year due to political infighting.

Neither Netanyahu nor his centrist rival Benny Gantz have been able to form a coalition government following deadlocked elections in September, with the country edging closer to a third election within twelve months.

Earlier Thursday Israel's President Reuven Rivlin turned to the country's parliament in the hope of avoiding a third election in 12 months.

Following the near neck-and-neck polls in September Netanyahu and Gantz were given four weeks each to try and form a new government.

Netanyahu, head of the Likud party, was given first go but failed. And Gantz, who leads the Blue and White coalition, admitted defeat late Wednesday after a similar period.

Rivlin has now given parliament 21 days to find a candidate who can command the support of the majority of the country's 120 MPs.

Gantz reportedly tried to woo MP's from Netanyahu's Likud party to join him in a broad national unity government, but there were no takers during the long and ultimately fruitless coalition negotiations following the September election.

Ofer Zalzberg, analyst with the International Crisis Group think-tank, said Netanyahu would be severely weakened by Mandelblit's announcement.

"Netanyahu has a weaker hand for the coming 20 days so may agree to compromises toward Blue and White he so far ruled out," he said.

Netanyahu could now face internal threats from within his Likud party, Zalzberg added.

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