Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said he planned to charge Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. All charges are subject to a hearing, which will likely take place after a snap election to be held in April.
Police investigators recommended prosecuting Netanyahu on several counts last year, setting up months of public speculation over when Mandelblit would announce the charges. The indictment is now likely to be a focal point of the campaign as Netanyahu vies for a fifth term in office.
Netanyahu’s Likud party unsuccessfully staged a last-ditch effort to protect him, petitioning the high court earlier Thursday to block Mandelblit’s announcement.
“Don’t believe all the spin. I intend to serve you as a prime minister for many more years,” Netanyahu said at a news conference later on Thursday, imploring voters to head to the polls in April. “It’s up to you. It’s not up to the civil servants. It’s not up to the television studios. It’s not up to the pundits and journalists. It’s only up to you.”
Netanyahu has survived multiple scandals over his decades in Israeli politics ― ranging from publicly admitting to an extramarital affair on the evening news to dealing with graft and bribery allegations ― but has never before faced an official indictment. Although corruption and graft charges are not unusual in Israeli politics, the country has also never had a sitting prime minister convicted of a crime.
Police investigated Netanyahu in three separate cases. The first case accuses Netanyahu of improperly accepting about $270,000 in luxury gifts, such as cigars and jewelry, from billionaires James Packer and Arnon Milchan. Netanyahu allegedly helped Milchan with tax exemptions and other favors. In another case, police believe Netanyahu tried to make a deal to get favorable press coverage in one of Israel’s biggest newspapers in exchange for damaging a rival publication. The third case also concerns Netanyahu allegedly trying to engineer positive press ― this time pushing through regulatory decisions to benefit the country’s biggest telecommunications company, Bezeq, which owns a popular Israeli website.
The corruption investigation into Netanyahu’s suspected dealings began in 2016, but intensified when the prime minister’s former chief of staff Ari Harow began cooperating with investigators in the summer of 2017 in a bid to avoid jail time. Israeli police made multiple recommendations last year to indict Netanyahu, saying that there was sufficient evidence to charge him. Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, was also indicted on fraud charges last year for misusing $100,000 in state funds in a separate case.
Netanyahu has gone to great lengths to characterize the allegations against him as a “witch hunt” from “the left and the media” intended to force him out of office. He’s asked to publicly confront the state’s witnesses against him, called the allegations a “joke” and claimed that announcing the indictments before an election would be unfairly damaging to his campaign. Earlier this year, he gave a nationally televised address to dispute the allegations and again cast himself as the victim of a political plot.
Although Netanyahu dismissed the investigations, he also tried to bargain with the attorney general and requested in mid-January that any indictment announcement be delayed until after the election. Israeli law does not require a prime minister to step down even if they are indicted, however, and Netanyahu made it clear that he would attempt to remain in power even as he contested the charges against him.
Prior to the charges, Netanyahu was widely expected to win re-election in April’s vote, but fall far short of the numbers needed for majority rule. In previous months he was able to maintain a shaky coalition government between his Likud party and allies made up of far-right and religious parties. If Netanyahu does manage to win in April and successfully form a government, he stands to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
Netanyahu is one of President Donald Trump’s staunchest defenders abroad, touting the president’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in his campaign videos and offering support for Trump’s border wall with Mexico.
The story has been updated with comment from Netanyahu’s news conference.