JERUSALEM — Israel’s attorney general recommended Thursday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust in connection with three corruption cases, casting uncertainty over his political future just six weeks before he faces an election.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit outlined the cases against the prime minister in a 57-page letter sent to Netanyahu’s lawyers.
Netanyahu, who has strongly denied the allegations against him, now has the opportunity to present his defense at a hearing before Mandelblit makes a final decision on an indictment. But the recommendation indicates that Israel’s top legal authority believes there is enough evidence to proceed with a trial.
The legal challenge is a serious blow to Netanyahu ahead of April 9 elections, which he had been predicted to win comfortably on the way to becoming the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. But in recent weeks, as the attorney general’s announcement neared, Netanyahu slipped to second place in some opinion polls, especially after his two main rivals, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, decided to run against him on a joint ticket.
Polls have projected that the indictment announcement could cost Netanyahu’s party an additional four seats in parliament. Even if he does win, the scandal could make it more difficult for Netanyahu to build the coalition he needs to govern.
Hours after the attorney general’s recommendation became public, Netanyahu addressed the nation. He described the allegations as a left-wing conspiracy to oust him and as a “house of cards” that would collapse soon after the election. “Don’t let this witch hunt confuse you,” he said addressing voters from the prime minister’s official residence.
Netanyahu has previously said he will not resign if indicted, and his current coalition partners released statements of support Thursday urging that he be considered innocent until proved guilty.
Although Mandelblit’s recommendation was long expected, the announcement rocked Israel on Thursday. Television reporters crowded outside the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence in pouring rain to broadcast their take on how the corruption scandal could affect the man who has steered the country for a total of more than 13 years.
Netanyahu’s decision to call elections early, bringing them forward to April from later in the year, was widely seen by political analysts as an attempt to get to the polls before his legal woes caught up with him.
His lawyers filed a last-ditch legal petition Thursday saying that Mandelblit’s move reflected “leftist, thuggish pressure” to topple the prime minister and interfere in the elections. The Justice Ministry rejected the petition, saying there was no legal reason not to proceed.
The document that Mandelblit sent to Netanyahu’s lawyers said in part that the prime minister should be charged with fraud and breach of trust in connection with Case 1000, which centers on allegations that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, received gifts of cigars and jewelry worth around $280,000 in exchange for political favors. The billionaire benefactors allegedly included Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, whose film credits include “Fight Club” and “Pretty Woman,” and Australian business executive James Packer.
The letter said that between 2011 and 2016 Netanyahu lobbied U.S. officials to issue a visa to Milchan on two occasions and also asked the finance minister at the time, Yair Lapid, to extend income tax exemptions to benefit Milchan.
Mandelblit also recommended that the prime minister be charged with fraud and breach of trust in connection with Case 2000, which centers on a deal Netanyahu allegedly sought with Arnon Mozes, publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper and the Ynet news website. Under the deal, Netanyahu was to advance legislation to weaken one of Mozes’s competitors in return for favorable coverage.
In connection with yet another case, called Case 4000, the attorney general recommended the prime minister be indicted on charges including bribery and breach of trust. Netanyahu is accused of easing business regulations for Shaul Elovitch, majority shareholder of Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications company, in exchange for favorable coverage of him and his wife on the popular news website Walla, also owned by Elovitch.
Israeli police have said they have evidence that from 2014 to 2017, while Netanyahu served as minister of communications as well as prime minister, he intervened with regulators to help Bezeq merge with another large Israeli communications company. In exchange, Elovitch instructed journalists at Walla to provide favorable coverage of the prime minister and his wife, according to the police statement.
Journalists, including senior editors from the website, have spoken publicly about being ordered to change headlines and photographs and remove or add content to boost the prime minister’s image.
On Thursday, President Trump said that while he was not familiar with the specifics of the allegations against Netanyahu, the Israeli leader has done “a great job as prime minister.”
In Netanyahu’s televised address, he thanked “my friend Trump” for his words and said that as prime minister he had built strong relationships with Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that had benefited Israel’s security.
Speaking about the personal toll the three-year corruption investigation had taken, Netanyahu said the “witch hunt” had targeted his entire family. “They used everything they had against me. They persecuted my wife and my son. For three years they put my family through hell,” he said, as his eyes appeared to tear up.
After the prime minister finished his remarks, his election rival Gantz went on television and called on him to step aside. “Mr. Netanyahu, don’t forget — this country belongs to all of us, it’s not about left and right. Israel comes before everything. Unfortunately today, you chose a path that isn’t befitting a prime minister of Israel. Instead of choosing the good of the country — you chose your own well-being,” Gantz said.
Netanyahu had released a short video Monday of him appealing to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to make public documents he said would prove his innocence in Case 4000. He said that these would show he committed no illegal activity in his dealings with Elovitch and that all the decisions made while he served as communications minister adhered to legal procedure and were taken in consultation with the proper authorities.
Shaked responded by saying she could not intervene in the prosecution’s work.
Israeli police last year recommended that Netanyahu be indicted on charges including fraud and breach of trust in relation to the three corruption cases. Several of his top aides have turned state’s witness as the corruption allegations have mounted, agreeing to give evidence in return for immunity.
In the Israeli justice system, the power to issue indictments rests with the attorney general.
Mandelblit faced a weighty decision whether to move ahead with the indictment process before the election, because this leaves him open to accusations of interfering with the electoral process. But waiting could have invited criticism that he was withholding crucial information from the public ahead of the vote.
Netanyahu has argued that Mandelblit’s move is undemocratic, since it means voters will go to the polls having heard the allegations but without the prime minister’s having had a chance to fully put forward his defense. He has compared it to cutting off the arm of a man for theft, only for him to be acquitted later. “Can anyone give him back his arm? Can anyone give you back the elections?” he said in a video he released this year.
It is an uphill battle for any party to topple the Israeli leader, but an indictment could change things, said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli political opinions expert who has worked on five campaigns, describing the potential indictment as a “monkey wrench.”
“Will he come under pressure to resign? There’s a portion of his base that believe there will be nothing because there is nothing. But how many people will continue to believe that? It’s hard to predict,” she said.
The prime minister has said he will not quit even if he is indicted, and under Israeli law he is not required to do so until he has been convicted and the appeals process has been exhausted.
“There will be nothing because there is nothing,” is the declaration he has often used.
But there is legal precedent for ministers being forced to step down after being charged.
If Netanyahu is indicted, it is almost certain that his rivals or civil society organizations will file legal petitions calling on him to relinquish office on the basis of those previous rulings, said Guy Lurie, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.
Legal experts say that Netanyahu’s defense lawyers could draw out the hearing process for months, and it is possible that Mandelblit ultimately will decide not to proceed.
If Netanyahu survives until July, he will become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, overtaking the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion.