Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit charges PM Benjamin Netanyahu with fraud, breach of trust, and accepting bribes in three different scandals, the Ministry of Justice says. Netanyahu decries "coup attempt" against him.

A woman walks past a banner depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the words
A woman walks past a banner depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the words "Crime Minister" outside the Justice Ministry during pre-trial hearings in corruption cases against him in occupied Jerusalem, October 3, 2019. (Reuters)

Israel's attorney general indicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a range of corruption charges, including bribery and fraud on Thursday, the country's Ministry of Justice announced. Netanyahu angrily accused prosecutors of staging "an attempted coup."

Avichai Mandelblit has "decided to file charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for offences of receiving a bribe, fraud, and breach of trust," a ministry statement said, throwing the country’s paralysed political system into further disarray and threatening the longtime leader’s grip on power.

It is the first time a sitting Israeli prime minister has been charged with a crime. 

'A heavy and sad day'

Mandelblit issued a formal statement later in which he rejected accusations that his decision was politically motivated and said he had acted solely out of professional considerations.

"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," he told reporters.

Allegations against Netanyahu include suspicions he 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.

Will Netanyahu step down?

The indictment does not require Netanyahu to resign but is expected to raise pressure on him to step down.

Netanyahu has called the allegations part of a witch hunt, lashing out against the media, police, prosecutors and the justice system.

On Thursday, an ashen-faced Netanyahu appeared on national TV, claiming he was the victim of a grand conspiracy by police and prosecutors.

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."

TRT World's Yasmine El-Sabawi reports.

Netanyahu has 'no moral mandate'

Netanyahu's main political rival said the indicted prime minister has "no public or moral mandate to make fateful decisions for the state of Israel."

Former army chief Benny Gantz said in a statement the indictment raises concerns that Netanyahu "will make decisions in his own personal interest and for his political survival and not in the national interest."

Netanyahu and Gantz were virtually tied after September's elections and each failed to assemble a majority coalition in parliament. The country now appears headed into an unprecedented third round of elections in less than a year, in part because of Netanyahu's legal woes.

What does the indictment say?

The most serious charges were connected to the so-called "Case 4000," in which Netanyahu 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 turned state's witness and testified against him in the case.

The indictment also said that Netanyahu's gifts of champagne from billionaires Arnon Milchan and James Packer, "turned into a sort of supply line." It estimated the value of the gifts at nearly $200,000.

The indictment said Netanyahu assisted the Israeli Milchan, a Hollywood mogul, in extending his US visa. It was not immediately clear what, if anything, Packer received in return.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies