Israel\’s attorney general announced Thursday he intended to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in a decision just weeks ahead of April elections.
The long-awaited announcement will further shake up the turbulent political campaign and threaten Netanyahu\’s long tenure at the top of Israeli politics.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said in a statement that he intended to charge the premier pending a hearing, where Netanyahu would be given a chance to defend himself before charges are filed.
The announcement comes ahead of April 9 elections in which Netanyahu is facing a tough challenge from a centrist political alliance headed by a respected former military chief of staff, Benny Gantz.
Netanyahu, who rejects all accusations, was due to speak at 1800 GMT and his right-wing Likud party called the allegations "political persecution."
"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," Likud said in a statement.
Netanyahu has been prime minister for a total of around 13 years and he would be on track to surpass founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel\’s longest-serving premier should he win in April.
He is not required to step down if indicted, only if convicted with all appeals exhausted.
He calls the investigations a bid by his political enemies to force him from office.
His right-wing Likud party earlier Thursday had joined a petition filed with the supreme court to stop Mandelblit from announcing his decision before the elections.
The supreme court on Thursday afternoon rejected the petition, paving the way for Mandelblit to proceed with his announcement.
– Trump support –
Netanyahu earlier in the day received support from US President Donald Trump, who defended his Israeli ally in remarks after his summit in Hanoi with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
"I can say this, he\’s done a great job as prime minister," Trump said.
"He\’s tough, smart, and strong. He\’s very defensive, his military has been built up a lot."
Netanyahu later thanked Trump on Twitter.
The prime minister also posted an animated video in which a voiceover calls the investigations a "house of cards" and rebuts accusations against him.
But after Mandelblit\’s announcement, Netanyahu was already facing calls to resign.
"Put an end to the nation\’s shame," Labour party leader Avi Gabbay said.
"Don\’t wage the battle from the prime minister\’s residence."
Police have recommended Netanyahu\’s indictment in three different cases.
In one case, he is accused of pursuing regulatory benefits allegedly granted to telecommunications firm Bezeq in exchange for positive coverage from a related media company.
The attorney general said he intended to indict Netanyahu, 69, for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in that case.
Another involves Netanyahu allegedly seeking a secret deal with the publisher of Israel\’s top-selling newspaper Yediot Aharonot to ensure positive coverage in return for pushing forward a law that would have limited the circulation of a rival.
Netanyahu faces fraud and breach of trust charges linked to that investigation.
The third case involves suspicions the premier and his family received luxury gifts from wealthy individuals in exchange for financial or personal favours.
He also faces fraud and breach of trust charges in that case.
The announcement Thursday will give further ammunition to his political opponents.
The agreement to form Gantz\’s centrist alliance under the name Blue and White — the colours of the Israeli flag — had already posed a major challenge to Likud.
Prior to the February 21 unveiling of the alliance, Likud had consistently been comfortably ahead in opinion polls.
Polls since then have shown Gantz\’s alliance with the most seats, though not nearly enough to win outright and it is unclear if he would be able to assemble enough parties for a coalition.