Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced Thursday, prolonging the country’s political uncertainty as it looks set to head into its third national election in a year.
Netanyahu, who has denied any wrongdoing and said he is the victim of a "witch hunt," faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum 3-year term for fraud and breach of trust, according to legal experts.
"I give my life to this state, I fought for it, I was wounded for it. I have to say this is a very hard day," Netanyahu said in a nationally televised address on Thursday night. "I think you need to be blind to see that something wrong is going on. This is a political coup."
The prime minister insisted, without presenting evidence, that the indictment is a political vendetta.
"It’s very disturbing what is going on here and how the police conducted this investigation," Netanyahu said. "This is a contaminated process, we need to investigate the investigators, they didn’t want the truth, they were after me personally."
Netanyahu's chief political rival, former army chief Benny Gantz, said the indictment raises concerns that the prime minister "will make decisions in his own personal interest and for his political survival and not in the national interest."
The two were virtually tied after September’s elections and each failed to assemble a governing majority.
The move to indict Netanyahu was a "heavy-hearted decision,” Mandelblit told reporters on Thursday, in rejecting allegations the case is politically motivated.
In February, Mandelblit announced he was considering indicting Netanyahu on one count of bribery and three counts of fraud and breach of trust, in three different cases. The cases are known as Case 1000, Case 2000 and Case 4000.
Case 1000 alleges that Netanyahu received gifts, including cigars and champagne, worth “hundreds of thousands of shekels” from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and other supporters.
Case 2000 alleges that Netanyahu worked out a deal for favorable coverage with Arnon "Noni" Moses, the publisher of an Israeli newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, in exchange for backing a bill that would weaken a rival newspaper.
Case 4000 alleges that Netanyahu made regulatory decisions that favored the Bezeq telecommunications group in exchange for positive coverage on the news website Walla.
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The indictment comes while Netanyahu is serving as Israel's caretaker prime minister after he failed to cobble together a government last month.
Netanyahu had hoped to pass legislation that would prevent him from being indicted but has been unable to do so because he failed to form Israel’s next government following the Sept. 17 election.
"What I’m going through is not easy ... on my family day after day, the blood of my family is poured," Netanyahu said Thursday night. "I’m not willing to succumb and let there be such injustice, I will continue to lead the country."
Netanyahu called for an independent committee to evaluate the charges and evidence against him.
"I’m not going to let the liars to win," the prime minister said. "I’m going to manage and to lead this country, according to the laws."
On Wednesday, Gantz announced that he had also failed to form a government.
Netanyahu still has the option to ask the Israeli Parliament for immunity. But this request would need to be approved by a special committee that has not been established due to ongoing political deadlock.
There are now 21 days in which any member of Parliament can become prime minister if they muster the 61 signatures needed to achieve a majority in the Knesset. If that does not happen, Israel will return to the polls.
If that happens, Netanyahu’s indictment potentially poses a new legal problem.
If he wins the next election, it will be the first time a candidate for government is under indictment, raising the question as to whether President Reuven Rivlin can give Netanyahu the mandate to form the next government.