TEL AVIV—After months of anticipation and just five weeks ahead of Israeli election day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been indicted on a raft of corruption charges ranging from fraud to bribery and breach of trust.
And Bibi reacted true to form, referring to himself as "Benjamin Netanyahu, the most maligned man in the history of Israeli media."
Dripping with scorn, accusing the “media, the left and judicial functionaries” of persecuting him, his wife and son, he said all the charges would end “as dust.”
But in point of fact, Israeli citizens have never before been faced with a serving head of government, or candidate, indicted on criminal charges, and for all his bravado his hopes to be reelected for a fourth consecutive term may be scuttled.
Israel's judiciary has a proven history of independence, having dispatched former President Moshe Katzav to jail for rape and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to prison for corruption charges of significantly smaller magnitude than those now leveled against Netanyahu.
Both Katzav and Olmert, however, resigned months before criminal charges were filed against them.
“This changes everything,” said Anshel Pfeffer, Netanyahu biographer and political analyst for Haaretz. “The prime minister must now carry a new millstone around his neck, and it will weigh him down in the Israeli election and in his dealings with world leaders.”
Netanyahu’s party, the Likud, spent Thursday attempting to delay the attorney general’s expected declaration, petitioning the Supreme Court in a bid to postpone the indictments as nothing more than “blatant” electoral intervention by “leftist bullies.”
In an announcement, the Likud said the ultimate aim of Israel’s judicial authorities was to bring about “the downfall of the right-wing government and win the election, but not through the ballot boxes."
The Supreme Court rejected the petition without comment.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a Netanyahu appointee, indicted Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in each of three criminal investigations that have plagued his last two years.
The most serious accusation stem from “Case 4000” in which Netanyahu is accused of abusing his role as Minister of Communications, one of several portfolios he has held concurrent to his role as prime minister, to provide regulatory concessions to his friend and Israeli communications titan Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecom.
Elovitch is suspected of earning up to $300,000 from the deal, through which, on the other end of the quid pro quo, Walla News, Bezeq’s popular website, was to provide Netanyahu with supportive coverage.
In the legal documents filed on Thursday, Mandelblit accuses Netanyahu of demanding the Walla News portal display a video he posted on Facebook on its home page for several hours.
On March 17, 2015, election day in Israel, when partisan advertising is prohibited, Netanyahu posted a notorious video clip urging right wing voters to the polls to counter “droves of Arabs on buses” headed to vote.
Shaul Elovitch and his wife, Iris, have also been charged.
Netanyahu will also face trial in so-called “Case 2000,” in which recordings revealed illicit negotiations between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the popular tabloid Yedioth Ahronoth, in which the prime minister is alleged to have offered to squash Yediot’s principal rival, the pro-Netanyahu daily free paper Israel Hayom, in exchange for favorable coverage for the prime minister.
Mozes also was indicted.
Finally, in “Case 1000,” Netanyahu is alleged to have committed fraud and breach of trust for demanding and accepting luxurious gifts from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian business titan James Packer.
“Corruption charges are ridiculous,” Netanyahu’s personal spokesman Ofer Golan said in a statement. “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received nothing from Elovitch and gave him nothing. Walla's coverage was negative and got worse before the elections. All decisions regarding Bezeq were approved by all responsible regulators and the PM acted flawlessly, as the Ministry of Justice stated in an official document. Claiming two and a half online articles constitutes bribery is an absurdity without precedent in legal history. This house of cards will soon collapse.”
Netanyahu claims Walla News “continued to publish an ocean of anti-Netanyahu articles” and only very few positive stories about him and his family.
Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay called on Netanyahu to resign. “This is a black day for the country,” he said in a radio interview. “The prime minister is a national symbol. I ask you [Netanyahu] not to embarrass the citizens and fight to clear your name not from the prime minister’s residence.”
His top electoral rival, former army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who now leads the centrist Blue and White party, called on Netanyahu to resign and “lead your defense as a private citizen.”
He said he would not join an indicted Netanyahu in any future coalition government, even if Netanyahu wins in the polls, but predicted that “together we’ll vote correctly” to put state before politics.
As the charges were transmitted to Netanyahu’s attorneys, the Likud issued a statement saying, “This is political persecution.”
The cases will “collapse like a house of cards when the prime minister confronts the state's witnesses. He will bring dozens of witnesses who, oddly, have not been questioned and will present the documents and protocols proving that all the Prime Minister's actions and decisions have been done lawfully.”