JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was formally charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust on Thursday, making him the first Israeli premier to be indicted while in office and sending Israel’s already stalemated political system into further disarray.
Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit capped almost three years of investigation and months of speculation by handing down a 63-page indictment against the country’s longest-serving prime minister and its center of political gravity for the last decade.
The cases against Netanyahu center on police allegations that the prime minister and his wife, Sara, accepted more than $260,000 worth of luxury goods in exchange for political favors and that Netanyahu interceded with regulators and lawmakers on behalf of two media companies in exchange for positive news stories.
Netanyahu has steadfastly denied wrongdoing during a wide-ranging probe that he has repeatedly dismissed as a politically motivated “witch hunt.”
In October, his legal team spent four marathon days in front of prosecutors arguing that the charges should be reduced or dismissed, and few here expect him to do anything other than ferociously fight the counts that emerged.
Of more immediate concern is how the indictments could scramble his standing in Israel’s chaotic political standoff.
“We are in a historical and unprecedented situation with new legal questions almost every day,” Suzie Navot, a professor of constitutional law at the Haim Striks Law School in Rishon LeZion.
The indictments came down on the first day of an unparalleled phase in Israeli politics: a 21-day window in which any member of parliament can try to form a governing majority, including Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz, who both failed at that task in previous cycles.
While the law allows for a prime minister to remain in office until he or she is convicted and exhausted all appeals, it is unclear whether Netanyahu remains eligible to present a proposed government to Israel’s president.
“This is a question that will be brought to the Supreme Court of Israel,” Navot said. “I can imagine they will say the president does not have to give the mandate to an indicted member of the Knesset, that he can chose to give it to another member of same faction.”
The day’s news marked a remarkable – and ignominious – moment in a remarkable and controversial career. Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics in recent years like few other leaders before him. In office for a decade, last summer, he surpassed Ben Gurion as the country’s longest-serving premier.
Political observers have marveled at his survival powers in the rough and tumble of Israel’s fractious party system and his ability to wield the levers of government to his own advantage. Being able to stay in power after failing to claim a majority in the last two elections has only added to his reputation for near invincibility.
But after two officials that he personally appointed to their jobs became instrumental in the corruption investigation – Mandelblit, his former cabinet secretary and former Israeli Police Chief Roni Alsheich – Netanyahu’s powers to ward off threats seem diminished.
“It shows that he’s not as omnipotent as everyone thought,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a Ha’aretz columnist who wrote a recent biography of the prime minister. “It shows the system is stronger than Netanyahu.”
Pointing out that Israel has previously convicted a former prime minister – Ehud Olmert, who stood trial for taking money from real estate developers when he was mayor of Jerusalem – Pfeffer counted Mandelblit’s move as a mixed blessing.
“It’s not a proud day for any country when its prime minister is indicted on a charge of corruption, but it shows that Netanyahu has failed in his quest to erode the rule of law,” Pfeffer said.
In one of the three cases, police say the Netanyahus accepted more than a quarter of a million dollars in jewelry, cigars and other gifts from wealthy benefactors who had official business with the government, among them the Israeli-born producer Arnon Milchan, whose credits include “Fight Club” and “Pretty Woman.”
Netanyahu also allegedly pressed the United States repeatedly to give Milchan a U.S. visa and, in Israel, pushed the finance minister to extend an income tax exemption that would benefit the producer.
In another case, at a time that he served as his own minister of communications, Netanyahu allegedly intervened to smooth the way for a merger sought by Shaul Elovitch, majority shareholder of Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications company, in exchange for favorable coverage on the popular news website Walla, also owned by Elovitch. Walla reporters and editors have described being ordered to spike stories, tweak headlines and change photographs in ways that boosted Netanyahu’s image.
It is far from clear how the charges will affect Netanyahu’s political standing. He would remain eligible to run in a possible third election next spring. (Only those convicted of moral turpitude are barred from the ballot). But even the threat of indictment has been a major issue in the two previous campaigns. Gantz built his own campaign around a pledge not to serve with an indicted premier.
One October poll showed that a small majority of Israelis, 53.5%, thought Netanyahu should resign if indicted. Almost half, 47%, of his core right-wing supporters thought the same.
But Netanyahu has spent months disparaging the investigation as politically motivated “kish kush (Hebrew for nonsense.) Large parts of the electorate are sympathetic to his complaints.
“Among Likud members and the right-wing there is deep distrust for the legal process,” said Tal Schneider, a diplomatic and political correspondent for the Israeli business newspaper Globes. “Likud is backing him up because they have convinced themselves that it’s all a witch hunt and we hear the same things from D.C. about Trump.”
Another legal scholar, Gadi Taub of the Federmann School of Public Policy at Hebrew University, also compared the unfolding drama in Jerusalem to the impeachment hearings in Washington.
“The difference is that the impeachment is a political process, whereas in Israel, the prosecutor is also the legal adviser to the government, which is absolutely ridiculous,” Taub said. “There is no other functionary in the government that holds so much power, he can announce an investigation and he can make the decision on pressing indictment. That means a single unelected official can overthrow a government.”
Many will be watching Netanyahu’s Likud party for signs that the indictments will weaken what has been his formidable grip on it.
Netanyahu was first elected as chairman of the Likud in 1993, serving in the opposition until 1996. He resigned from politics after being defeated in a general election in 1999, returning to lead the party in 2005. Since then he has consolidated his position in Likud, dividing and weakening his opponents and facing very few challenges over the years.
The attorney general’s decision is unlikely to have an immediate impact on Netanyahu’s standing within his ruling Likud, but on Thursday there were already indications that a leadership challenge was underway.
Speaking at a diplomatic conference, former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar said holding elections for a new party leader, especially if the country was forced into a third election, was “the right and necessary thing to do under the current circumstances.”
“First of all, that is what our constitution requires if we are about to have new elections,” he said. “We are a democratic party, and we haven’t had primaries for several years already.”
Sa’ar said that he supported the prime minister’s efforts to form a national unity government, but “if we do go to elections, it is not reasonable to think that he will be successful in forming a government after third elections.”
He added, “I think I will be able to form a government, and I think I will be able to unite the country and the nation.”