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Israel's Netanyahu indicted on corruption charges

Friday, November 22, 2019

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted yesterday in a series of corruption cases, throwing Israel's paralysed political system into further disarray and threatening his 10-year grip on power.

He rejected calls to resign, angrily accusing prosecutors of staging “an attempted coup”.

The first-ever charges against a sitting Israeli prime minister capped a three-year investigation, with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit indicting Netanyahu for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes.

“A day in which the attorney general decides to serve an indictment against a seated prime minister for serious crimes of corrupt governance is a heavy and sad day, for the Israeli public and for me personally,” Mandelblit, who was appointed by Netanyahu, told reporters.

The indictment does not require the 70-year-old Netanyahu to resign, but it significantly weakens him at a time when Israel's political parties appear to be limping toward a third election in under a year.

An ashen-faced Netanyahu appeared on national TV later, claiming he was the victim of a grand conspiracy by police and prosecutors who had intimidated key witnesses into testifying against him.

He defiantly claimed the indictment stemmed from “false accusations” and a systematically “tainted investigation”, saying the country was witnessing an “attempted coup” against him.

“Police and investigators are not above the law,” he said. “The time has come to investigate the investigators.”

Netanyahu is desperate to remain in office to fight the charges. Under Israeli law, public officials are required to resign if charged with a crime. But that law does not apply to the prime minister, who can use his office as a bully pulpit against prosecutors and try to push Parliament to grant him immunity from prosecution.

As the investigation gained steam in recent months, Netanyahu has repeatedly lashed out at what he sees as a hostile media, police and justice system. Observers have compared his tactics to those of his good friend, US President Donald Trump, who has used similar language to rally his base during an accelerating impeachment hearing.

Several dozen supporters and opponents of Netanyahu staged rival demonstrations outside the prime minister's official residence last night. Police kept the groups apart and there were no reports of violence.

Mandelblit rejected accusations that his decision was politically motivated and said he had acted solely out of professional considerations. He criticised the often-heated pressure campaigns by Netanyahu's supporters and foes to sway his decision, which came after months of deliberations. Both sides had staged demonstrations outside or near his home.

“This is not a matter of politics,” he said. “This is an obligation placed on us, the people of law enforcement, and upon me personally, as the one at its head.”

According to the indictment, Netanyahu accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars of champagne and cigars from billionaire friends, offered to trade favours with a newspaper publisher and used his influence to help a wealthy telecom magnate in exchange for favourable coverage on a popular news site.

Netanyahu becomes Israel's first sitting prime minister to be charged with a crime. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was forced to resign a decade ago ahead of a corruption indictment that later sent him to prison for 16 months.

The decision comes at a tumultuous time for the country. After an inconclusive election in September, both Netanyahu and former military chief Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, have failed to form a majority coalition in Parliament. It's the first time in the nation's history that has happened.

After Gantz's deadline expired at midnight, the country yesterday entered an unprecedented 21-day period in which any Member of Parliament can try to rally a 61-member majority to become prime minister.

If that fails, new elections would be triggered, setting the stage for a three-month campaign followed by weeks or months of post-election negotiations and horse trading.

The only apparent way out of the crisis would be a unity government between the two parties, which together control a parliamentary majority. But after yesterday's indictment, that possibility appeared even more remote.

Blue and White leaders said it was impossible for Netanyahu to rule under indictment and warned that there was a risk his personal considerations could influence his decisions.

“A prime minister up to his neck in corruption allegations has no public or moral mandate to make fateful decisions for the state of Israel,” the party said in a statement.

The most serious charges against Netanyahu were connected to so-called “Case 4000”, in which he is accused of passing regulations that gave his friend, telecom magnate Shaul Elovitch, benefits worth over $250 million to his company, Bezeq. In return, Bezeq's news site, Walla, published favourable articles about Netanyahu and his family.

The relationship, it said, was “based on a mutual understanding that each of them had significant interests that the other side had the ability to advance”. It also accused Netanyahu of concealing the relationship by providing “partial and misleading information” about his connections with Elovitch.

Two close aides to Netanyahu testified against him in the case.

The indictment also described billionaires Arnon Milchan and James Packer as a “supply channel” of champagne and cigars for Netanyahu. It estimated the value of the gifts at roughly $200,000.


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