The campaign ahead of Israel’s April 9 elections has largely been about one man: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Seeking his fifth term, and the chance to surpass founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving premier, Netanyahu has a string of accomplishments to brag about, even as he’s presided over a near total collapse in peace talks with the Palestinians. His top rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, hardly ever criticizes the premier’s record. But much of the country is fed up with Bibi, as Netanyahu is known, particularly because of the corruption charges swirling around him. That has complicated his bid to make history and given his long-frustrated opponents an opening.

1. Where do the allegations against Netanyahu stand?

At the end of February, Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit announced a draft indictment against Netanyahu, indicating his intent to charge the prime minister with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. That announcement was the culmination of a widespread corruption probe and set in motion what could prove to be a lengthy legal process. It marked the first time a sitting Israeli leader has come so close to criminal charges.

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2. What does it mean legally?

Before an indictment is filed, Netanyahu, 69, is entitled to a hearing -- which could take months -- to present his side of the story and try to change the attorney general’s mind. Netanyahu says the investigation is a witch hunt, denies all wrongdoing, and insists he won’t step down unless convicted. The prime minister can continue in office until the appeals process is exhausted.

3. What are the charges?

Investigators estimate Netanyahu received gifts of champagne, cigars, and jewelry worth about 478,000 shekels ($132,000) from billionaire Arnon Milchan, producer of films such as “Fight Club” and “The Big Short.” In exchange, Mandelblit said, Netanyahu sought to advance Milchan’s interests in fields including telecommunications and tax law, and by helping with his U.S. visa. In a second case, Netanyahu is accused of conspiring with the owner of Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper to undermine Israel Hayom, a free daily. In a third case, which legal experts consider the gravest, Netanyahu is suspected of advancing the business interests of his friend Shaul Elovitch, controlling shareholder of Bezeq Israeli Telecommunications Corporation Ltd., the country’s largest telecommunications company. He’s alleged to have done so in exchange for favorable media coverage on a Bezeq-owned news site.

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4. What are the political implications?

Netanyahu has been called the “magician” of Israeli politics, and has lived up to the reputation in the closing days of the campaign by securing accomplishments such as American recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights and the return of the remains of an Israeli soldier missing since the 1982 Lebanon war. More broadly he has expanded Israel’s diplomatic ties while presiding over an era of economic prosperity. However, his legal troubles spurred a call for leadership change across the center and left-wing of the political spectrum. The charges galvanized a group of former military chiefs of staff to band together under Gantz’s leadership. Opinion polls showed Netanyahu’s Likud party in a close race with Gantz’s Blue & White bloc. One danger for the prime minister is that on election day conservative voters disaffected by the looming corruption charges could abandon him for other right-wing parties, or for an opposition bloc. Even with his lengthy track record, he has a newfound vulnerability for rivals to exploit.

5. How have the charges been used against him?

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Gantz has publicly thanked Netanyahu for his service but says that with the looming corruption indictments it’s time for a change. His party’s slogan is “Israel before everything,” a dig at Netanyahu’s alleged wrongdoing. He has also sought to tie Netanyahu to another corruption scandal regarding the military’s purchase of submarines, although the attorney general has said the prime minister is not implicated in that case.

6. How unusual is an investigation of a prime minister?

Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, went to jail on corruption charges after leaving office (he was released in 2017). Other investigations, of former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu himself during his first term, continued for years without resulting in charges against them.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ivan Levingston in New York at ilevingston@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at asalha@bloomberg.net, Michael S. Arnold, Lisa Beyer

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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