Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has announced that he will begin legal proceedings against Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery, abuse of trust and fraud, just weeks before the incumbent prime minister is due to contest a general election.
The indictments follow a three-year police investigation into allegations that Netanyahu offered political favours in return for positive media coverage and accepted lavish gifts from businessmen looking for advantageous tax breaks.
The move by the Attorney General has electrified the campaign before the April 9 legislative elections, which will see the prime minister run for a fifth term in office. Should he win, it would make him Israel’s longest serving prime minister as well as its first to be indicted on criminal charges.
In the so-called Case 1000, Mr Netanyahu is accused of “fraud” and “breach of trust”, concerning gifts he and his family received from two billionaires, the Australian James Packer and the Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, totaling 1 million shekels, or about $280,000.
In return for the gifts, investigators say Netanyahu tried to introduce tax breaks that would have benefited the businessmen.
Netanyahu faces another charge of breach of trust in a separate probe named Case 2000. This involves alleged negotiations between Netanyahu, who also served as communications minister, and the owner of one of Israel’s largest newspapers, Yedioth Ahronoth.
Investigators say Netanyahu sought more favourable news coverage in exchange for reducing the circulation of Yedioth Ahronoth’s largest rival, Israel HaYom.
The most potentially damaging charge, named Case 4000, concerns allegations that Netanyahu advanced regulatory benefits worth 1 billion shekels, about $280 million, to the telecommunications firm Bezeq whose main shareholder is Netanyahu’s friend Shaul Elovitch.
In return, Netanyahu allegedly received favourable coverage from news organisation owned by Elovitch.
Denying the allegations, Netanyahu made a televised address yesterday in which he blamed his political opponents and the media for carrying out a ‘witch hunt’ against him.
“The left knows it cannot beat us at the polling booth, so for the past three years they have been carrying out an unprecedented witch hunt which has one aim – to topple the right-wing government which I lead,” Netanyahu said.
“Unilateral publication of the attorney general’s announcement just a month before the elections, without giving the prime minister an opportunity to refute these false accusations, is a blatant and unprecedented intervention in the elections.”
Vowing to continue leading the right-wing Likud party into next month’s elections the prime minister said the charges against him will collapse “like a house of cards,” and that he intends to continue as prime minister “for many more years.”
A hearing will likely be held in a few months to allow the defence to present its arguments. Only after this will a final decision be made as to where to proceed with the charges.