Most serious charge, bribery, carries maximum prison sentence of 10 years; Netanyahu is first sitting Israeli prime minister to be indicted
TEL AVIV—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted on bribery charges Thursday, imperiling the country’s longest-serving leader as he looks set to fight for his personal and political future in a third election contest.
Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said Mr. Netanyahu would be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in connection to three corruption probes known as Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000. Mr. Netanyahu allegedly traded official favors for flattering news coverage as well as gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, including pink champagne, cigars and jewelry.
The bribery charge, a key element of Case 4000, is the most serious and, if convicted, Mr. Netanyahu could face up to 10 years in prison. The lesser charges could result in three to five years in jail.
“The interests of the public dictates that they live in a state in which no man is above the law,” Mr. Mandelblit said in a rare televised speech. “It was not my choice. It was my duty.”
Mr. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing. In a blistering 17-minute response to the indictment, he slammed the corruption charges and the police whose investigations led to them, saying they amounted to “a coup against the prime minister.”
“They didn’t seek the truth. They sought me out,” he said. “There is one law for others, and there is one law for Netanyahu.”
The legal process could last months, if not years, and the current interim government could slow the process down because of how the complicated immunity process works. Mr. Netanyahu can also try to seek a plea deal. Significantly, Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t have to step down as prime minister if indicted, only if he is ultimately convicted.
“I will not allow lies to prevail, I will continue to lead this country according to the law,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
The state alleges in Case 4000 that Mr. Netanyahu granted lucrative regulatory favors to Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company, in exchange for positive coverage of Mr. Netanyahu and his wife Sara on a news website controlled by Bezeq’s former chairman.
The decision could plunge Israel into further political chaos after two elections failed to produce a clear winner to form a new government. The stakes for Mr. Netanyahu, who is attempting to continue as prime minister, are now significantly higher, as the post offers him much better protection from criminal charges.
Mr. Netanyahu can seek immunity from Israel’s parliament, however, because of the interim government situation, the parliamentary committee that would hear the request isn’t currently standing and therefore the process could be delayed.
After the April elections, Mr. Netanyahu’s allies sought to advance immunity legislation that would grant him protection from prosecution, as well as changes governing the Supreme Court that would prevent it from ruling such immunity unconstitutional. They failed in that attempt, but his supporters in the Knesset have said they would use existing laws on the books to try to shield him.
Up until now members of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party and other right-wing political allies have stuck by him and have joined him in condemning the two years of investigations as witch hunts and politically motivated. Recent polls suggest the charges are unlikely to dent his standing among voters much, if at all.
But the probability of a third election and Mr. Netanyahu’s indictment are likely to spark a primary election in his Likud party, which could potentially mark end of the 70-year-old’s long political career. A number of senior Likud lawmakers have already publicly expressed their hopes to take over the party’s leadership and a leading rival to Mr. Netanyahu said Thursday he will push for a leadership primary if third elections take place.
In Case 1000, the attorney general alleged Mr. Netanyahu received cigars, jewelry and pink champagne with a value of hundreds of thousands of dollars from two billionaire businessmen in return for favors, including lobbying U.S. officials for a visa for one of them.
In Case 2000, Mr. Mandelblit said Mr. Netanyahu allegedly agreed to limit the influence of Israel Hayom, a free newspaper owned by his political ally, U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson, in return for positive coverage in another paper, Yedioth Ahronoth.