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Benjamin Netanyahu to Face Trial on Charges of Bribery and Fraud

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will stand trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, an unprecedented development that could doom his career and shape the political crisis that’s gripped Israel this past year.

The 70-year-old Netanyahu was indicted in each of the three cases in which he was entangled, the Justice Ministry said in a statement, painting the picture of a leader who abused his position to take gifts from wealthy friends and sacrificed the integrity of his office to win favorable media coverage.

“It is a difficult and sad day for the Israeli public and for me, personally,” Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit said in a statement to the press from the Justice Ministry. “But while I did this with a heavy heart, I did it with a whole heart.”

Netanyahu accused law enforcement of trying to “stage a putsch against me” and vowed to “continue to lead the country.”

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“The tainted investigation didn’t pursue the truth, it pursued me,” he said in a televised address. “It’s a case of selective enforcement on steroids.”

While Israel is no stranger to seeing its leading officials under indictment, it’s the first time a sitting prime minister will be put in the dock.

“This has been a long time coming and people stake their ground out long in advance so I don’t think were going to see a mass defection in the Likud” party that Netanyahu leads, said Shalom Lipner, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who has served seven Israeli prime ministers. “But it clearly does move him further away from retaining power.”

Netanyahu won’t have to step down now that he’s been charged, only if he’s convicted and has exhausted all avenues of appeal. He’s said he has no intention to resign, and maintains he’s the victim of a conspiracy of left-wing opponents and media figures who deplore his nationalist agenda and are frustrated by their inability to vote him out of power.

The indictment rejects Netanyahu’s protestations of innocence and comes at a tumultuous time in Israeli politics. Twice Netanyahu has been unable to put together a governing coalition after back-to-back elections this year. Challenger Benny Gantz also was given a chance but failed, and the prospect of a third vote early next year looms large.

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The shekel was little changed and the stock market was closed.

Netanyahu is accused of receiving about 1 million shekels ($254,000) worth of cigars, champagne and jewelry from wealthy businessmen, including Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, in exchange for tax breaks. He’s also accused of reshaping the country’s communications landscape and discussing an offer to weaken a leading newspaper in order to win sympathetic coverage from the media moguls that would benefit.

Netanyahu’s legal woes stoked his desire to stay in power. He’s hoping to push through legislation shielding a sitting leader from prosecution, though that’s been complicated by the failed coalition-building. Critics have alleged that he engineered this year’s two elections hoping to build a government that would deliver the protection.

While the prime minister’s Likud party remains publicly supportive of him, pressure on Netanyahu to resign could mount. At least one leading Likud member, Gideon Saar, has said he’s prepared to challenge him for the party leadership.

Mandelblit had served notice in February that he intended to prosecute Netanyahu, but it’s practice in Israel to give senior officials a hearing to plead their case to try to avert charges. The prime minister had his hearing in October, but his lawyers failed to dispel the attorney general’s concerns about the accusations that have clouded Netanyahu’s record 13 years in office.

Invincibility Challenged
The allegations punctured the aura of invincibility that had enveloped the prime minister for years and allowed Gantz, a political newcomer and former military chief, to launch a formidable challenge in April and September elections. On both occasions, their parties were nearly tied as a large portion of the Israeli electorate despaired of the taint of corruption on their body politic and lined up behind Gantz’s Blue and White bloc.

But efforts to bring together Likud and Blue and White in a power-sharing agreement collapsed, in part because Gantz’s bloc balked at sitting in a government led by Netanyahu while corruption allegations dogged him.

The political turmoil has held up the Trump administration’s release of its blueprint for Middle East peacemaking and delayed efforts to narrow Israel’s widening budget deficit. Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, continue to pose challenges to Israel’s security.

If Netanyahu ultimately manages to put together a coalition, the distraction of criminal charges could badly compromise his ability to govern. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, quit to battle the corruption allegations that had engulfed his tenure, but was convicted and went to jail.

Mandelblit’s decision “could taint Netanyahu’s entire legacy,” according to Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group research center. “It means that people will more easily question the wisdom of his past decisions.”

(Updates with Netanyahu comments from fourth paragraph)
–With assistance from Ivan Levingston.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Amy Teibel in Jerusalem at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Lin Noueihed at [email protected]
Mark Williams, Gwen Ackerman

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