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Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to be indicted on bribery charges pending hearing

The announcement comes less than two months before Israel’s elections.

Israeli protesters raise signs as they demonstrate against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of police recommendations to indict corruption, in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on February 16, 2018.
Israeli protesters raise signs as they demonstrate against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of police recommendations to indict him on corruption, in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on February 16, 2018.
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

In a long-awaited decision, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced on Thursday that he intends to officially charge Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu with crimes related to corruption.

The attorney general plans to indict the prime minister on bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, charges related to three different corruption cases, the Israeli news outlet Haaretz reported. The indictment is pending the results of a hearing and is not final.

Israeli police recommended three times last year that Netanyahu be indicted on corruption charges — so Mandelblit’s decision didn’t come as a complete surprise. But it’s still pretty bad timing for the prime minister.

Israeli elections are coming up on April 9, and Netanyahu is running for his fourth consecutive term. The attorney general’s decision could lead to the conservative Likud party losing its grip on power, and also make it difficult for them to form a coalition after elections.

Similar to a certain US president, Netanyahu has accused investigators of leading a “witch hunt” against him and decried the “liberal” media for conspiring to undermine him.

In a speech on Thursday after the attorney general’s announcement, Netanyahu doubled down on these claims, calling himself “the most vilified person in the history of Israeli media,” according to the Jerusalem Post. He also vowed to continue serving as prime minister for years to come.

The attorney general’s decision comes after years of investigations

Netanyahu is facing charges related to three corruption cases.

In the first, known as Case 1000, Israeli police allege that for years, Netanyahu and his wife Sara received gifts in the form of hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of champagne, jewelry, and cigars from wealthy individuals in the United States and Australia.

In exchange, Netanyahu reportedly tried to extend tax exemption legislation that would have benefited at least one of the men involved. The new charges related to this case are fraud and breach of trust.

In the second case, known as Case 2000, one of Netanyahu’s aides recorded lengthy conversations between the prime minister and the head of Yedioth Ahronoth, one of Israel’s largest papers, in which they discussed a deal making the paper less critical of Netanyahu.

In return, the prime minister would stop the weekend publication of the paper’s commercial rival, Israel Today, which is owned by US casino magnate Sheldon Adelson (which is sometimes known in Israel as the “Bibi paper” for its pro-Netanyahu stance).

The deal apparently was never settled, but the conversations in themselves were damning enough. The charges in this case are breach of trust and fraud.

The third and most recent case against the prime minister is known as Case 4000, and experts agree that this is the most damning.

On December 2, Israeli police accused Netanyahu of trading regulatory favors for positive media coverage of himself and his family. Over a period of five years, the prime minister reportedly intervened in the day-to-day coverage and affairs of Walla, a news website run by the country’s telecommunications company, Bezeq.

In return, Netanyahu — in his role as minister of communications, which is one of his titles — allegedly rewarded the company by using his political power to give them more favorable regulations, despite political opposition. The charges related to this case are bribery and breach of trust.

So what’s next for Israel’s prime minister?

Netanyahu will likely participate in a hearing, where he will have the chance to rebut the accusations. If the indictment becomes official, there could be appeal hearings, and the process could potentially last several months, or even years.

If Netanyahu is reelected — and that’s a big if — it’s unclear how this process will affect him. There’s an ongoing legal debate about whether the prime minister can be forced to resign if he has to sit trial, experts told me.

In the meantime, the prime minister still enjoys a high level of popularity among Israelis. He’s proved remarkably resilient to corruption claims that have plagued his administration for years.

But with elections coming up right around the corner, it remains to be seen how the news about the potential indictment could cause the political landscape to shift.