The most serious charges sees Netanyahu accused of passing regulations that gave his friend, telecom magnate Shaul Elovitch, benefits worth over US$250 million to his company.

By Ian Horswill

Posted on November 22, 2019

Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become the first person sitting in the office in Israel’s history to be charged with corruption.

An ashen-faced Netanyahu, who is fighting a seperate battle to remain prime minister, a position he has held since 31 March 2009, accused police and state prosecutors of an “attempted coup” against him. This came shortly after Israel’s attorney general Avichai Mandelblit announced he would be charged in three separate cases being investigated against him, including bribery.

“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 at AP News.

The indictment follows a four-day hearing with Netanyahu’s defence team last month, followed by weeks of intensive discussion at the attorney general’s offices, Haaretz reported.

Mandelblit lamented that “while conducting a professional hearing process, we’ve witnessed repeated attempts to delegitimise the people who were involved” in the investigations. He defended his colleagues, saying “these people acted out of proper motives”.

The delegitimisation “was meant to create the impression that any decision taken would be wrong.”

“The investigations are based on broad-based evidence and testimony, which were professionally reviewed. No stone was left unturned.”

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.

Israel’s prime minister went on the attack immediately.

“I’ve given my life for this country, I fought for this country, was wounded for this country,” an emotional Netanyahu said in a televised address.

“I deeply respect the justice system in Israel. But you have to be blind not to see that something bad is happening to police investigators and the prosecution. We’re seeing an attempted coup by the police with false accusations,” Netanyahu accused.

Netanyahu listed a litany of complaints about the conduct of the investigation: “These facts emphasise how much this process is tainted. It’s meant to topple a right-wing prime minister, me. I, who unlike the left and the slanted media, want to institute a free market, not only in the economy but also a free market of ideas, who wants to see a strong country, not a weak, shrunken, bowed country.”

The most serious charges, all when Netanyahu was communications minister, sees Netanyahu accused of passing regulations that gave his friend, telecom magnate Shaul Elovitch, benefits worth over US$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 Bezeq 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 US$200,000.

It said Netanyahu assisted the Israeli Milchan, a Hollywood mogul, in extending his US visa. It was not immediately clear what, if anything, Packer, who is Australian, received in return, AP News reported.

The final case accuses Arnon Mozes, publisher of the Yediot Ahronot, of offering positive coverage of Netanyahu in exchange for pushing legislation that would have harmed a free newspaper that has cut into Yediot’s profits.

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 jail for 16 months.

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 that has happened.

Benny Gantz's party is ahead in the polls in Israel.

After Gantz’s deadline expired at midnight, the country on Thursday 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.