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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be indicted on corruption charges

The announcement marks the first time in Israeli history that a sitting prime minister faces criminal charges of this nature.
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Israel's attorney general announced Thursday that his office plans to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges after a two-year investigation.

The prime minister faces one count of bribery and three counts of breach of trust.

"The Attorney General, Avihai Mandelblit, has informed the Prime Minister, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, through his attorney, that he is considering indicting him on several criminal charges," according to a statement by Ministry of Justice spokesman Adi Livni.

Prosecutors would have to go forward with a pre-indictment hearing before Netanyahu is formally charged.

"It should be noted that the decision regarding an indictment is not yet final, since the Attorney General will offer to conduct a pre-indictment hearing before reaching any final decision, according to Israeli law," according to Livni's statement.

With elections just six weeks away, Netanyahu called the prosecution's announcement "outrageous" and an "unprecedented witch hunt" carried out by his liberal opponents.

The prime minister vowed to refute all allegations which he said are "blood libel."

Police have previously recommended indicting Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three different cases.

Netanyahu claimed his predecessors have received small gifts similar to what he has been accused of taking, but were not charged.

"If it not Bibi — there’s no investigation," Netanyahu said, referring to himself by his nickname.

The most serious allegations against Netanyahu involve his relationship with Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Israel's telecom giant Bezeq.

Police recommended an indictment in the case based on evidence collected that confidants of Netanyahu promoted regulatory changes worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Bezeq. In exchange, they believe Netanyahu used his connections with Elovitch to receive positive press coverage on Bezeq's popular subsidiary news site, Walla. Police have said their investigation concluded that Netanyahu and Elovitch engaged in a "bribe-based relationship."

Police also recommended charges be brought against Elovitch, members of his family and members of his Bezeq management team.

Police have previously recommended indicting Netanyahu on corruption charges in two other cases. One involves accepting gifts from billionaire friends, and the second revolves around alleged offers of advantageous legislation for a major newspaper in return for favorable coverage.

Netanyahu, 69, who is serving his third consecutive term as prime minister and his fourth overall, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and called the various allegations against him a witch hunt aimed at removing him from office.

The attorney general's decision to publish his conclusions 39 days prior to the general election on April 9 is raising questions about what impact it can have on the outcome of the vote.

Israeli media reported Thursday that with just hours to go before Mandelblit's anticipated decision to indict Netanyahu, his Likud Party filed a petition to the Supreme Court to stop the announcement from happening before the election on the grounds that it would unfairly impact on Netanyahu's prospects of re-election. However, the court's spokesperson confirmed later in the afternoon that the petition was rejected.

The announcement marks the first time in Israeli history that a sitting prime minister faces criminal charges of this nature.

Legal experts in Israel say it could take up to a year for a hearing process into the charges to end and an additional two years for a court case to be heard.

While Israeli prime ministers are not required by law to resign if charged, the prospect of a prime minister standing trial while simultaneously running the country would be uncharted territory.

In response to the indictment, Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute said Netanyahu should consider carefully whether it’s best for him to stay on as prime minister or resign and focus on proving his case in the courts.

“We cannot ignore the serious potential damage to the public's trust in the state’s institutions caused by a situation in which the government is headed by an individual charged with criminal misconduct involving abuse of power,” the organization’s statement said.

The institute says the timing of the announcement doesn’t constitute “an inappropriate influence on the elections” because it was made “within a reasonable amount of time before the elections, taking into account both the public’s right to know and the desire not to intervene in the electoral process.”

Israeli law professor Avi Bell, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum, said the indictment inserts law enforcement officials into the political arena “in an unprecedented way, and on a very shaky legal foundation.”

President Donald Trump, with whom Netanyahu has forged a close connection, said "[Netanyahu's] done a great job as prime minister" in response to a question in Hanoi, where he was holding a summit with the leader of North Korea.

"He's tough, he's smart, he's strong," Trump said of the Israeli leader, but didn’t comment on the indictment.

Netanyahu rushed back Wednesday from a diplomatic mission to Moscow, and a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, to prepare for his expected rebuttal to the charges on Thursday.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is Netanyahu's former cabinet secretary.

While no stranger to scandal, this was the first time Netanyahu faced the possibility of being formally charged with a crime.

Netanyahu and his family's luxurious lifestyle — often at taxpayers’ expense — has come under scrutiny before. Nearly six years ago, Netanyahu was criticized for reportedly spending $127,000 in public funds for a special sleeping cabin for a five-and-a-half hour flight to London for Margaret Thatcher's funeral. That came just months after the Netanyahu family's taxpayer-funded food budget included $2,700 for artisanal pistachio and French vanilla ice cream.

CORRECTION (Feb. 28, 2019, 12:56 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this story misstated the Israeli attorney general's decision regarding an indictment for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The attorney general said he plans to issue the indictment, but has not done so yet.