Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced on Thursday his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu on charges of bribery and breach of trust; a decision made just weeks ahead of the tightly contested April elections.
The attorney’s move could be crucial for the upcoming elections. The announcement is the first time a serving Israeli prime minister has been put on official notice of planned prosecution.
More importantly, it deepens uncertainty and discontentment among Isreali voters over Netanyahu, who already faces stiff opposition from centrist rivals.
Friendship turns to a dilemma
Mandelblit and Netanyahu had been close friends for a long time in the corridors of power in Israel.
They began working closely for the first time to combat the United Nations’ Goldstone Report which was meant to reveal Israel’s war crimes during its deadly operation in Gaza when more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed.
Netanyahu, impressed by Mandelblit’s efforts to combat the report, appointed him as his cabinet secretary from 2013 to 2016, and then-attorney general, a decision that reflected Netanyahu’s deep trust in him.
Even though leftist Israelis spoke out strongly against Netanyahu’s corruption scandals, Mandelblit tried to soft-pedal the cases to save the prime minister from public embarrassment; at least for a while.
But mounting pressure within Israel’s judiciary system that blamed him for protecting Netanyahu, and increasing public opinion that legal steps be taken, forced Mandelblit to take action.
For two Israeli right-wing technocrats, the close friendship has evolved into a dilemma.
As the government’s top lawyer, Mandelblit continued to hold private meetings with Netanyahu while investigating him as a criminal suspect.
In a rare interview, the attorney defended himself by saying his main task is to protect and represent the office of the attorney general.
“I didn’t invent it; it was here for 70 years before,” he said. “And it will continue to exist for decades to come.”
On the other hand, a few hours after the attorney’s announcement, Netanyahu blamed his left-wing rivals in an aim to consolidate his right-wing support.
"The left knows it cannot beat us at the polling booth, so for the past three years they have been carrying out an unprecedented witch hunt which has one aim: to topple the right-wing government which I lead," he said.
He is not the only elected official in Israel to face legal issues. Two former leaders were previously taken to court once they had left office, including former president Moshe Katsav, who was convicted of rape, and former prime minister Ehud Olmert, for bribery.
Champagne and Cigars
The case known as Case 1,000, involves allegations that Netanyahu and his family received gifts including luxury cigars, champagne and jewellery from wealthy individuals, estimated to be worth about $277,000 in exchange for financial or personal favours.
According to police, Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer gave the gifts.
Netanyahu is suspected in return of having sought to help Milchan receive tax benefits that some reports say could have been worth millions of dollars, among other alleged offences.
A secret deal
A second investigation, known as Case 2,000, consists of allegations that Netanyahu sought a deal with the owner of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper that would have seen it give him more favourable coverage.
Police based their investigation on recordings of meetings between Netanyahu and Yediot publisher Arnon Moses.
In exchange, Netanyahu allegedly raised the possibility of pushing for legislation that would have limited the circulation of Israel Hayom, its main rival in the press.
Seeking positive coverage
The third investigation, known as Case 4,000, is considered the most severe allegation against Netanyahu.
He is accused of having negotiated with Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Israeli telecommunications giant Bezeq, to get favourable coverage on his Walla! news site in exchange for policies benefiting Bezeq.
Shlomo Filber, a Netanyahu ally for more than 20 years and a former communications ministry director general, has become a state witness in the case. He is accused of mediating between Netanyahu and Elovitch and promoting regulatory changes worth millions to Bezeq.
He could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum three-year term for fraud and breach of trust, though he is not legally required to resign if indicted.
The announcement by Mandelblit is a serious challenge to the 13-year of the rule of Netanyahu, who is seeking his fourth consecutive term in the April’s elections.