Israeli PM Netanyahu defiant after corruption indictment

The charges however can now officially ruin premier's decades-long political career

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday became the country's first prime minister to be indicted in office, on corruption charges, but defiantly condemned the "coup" against him and refused to step down on any occasion. The shock announcement compounded the political chaos gripping Israel, which has been without a government for months and faces the prospect of its third election in a year. 

After months of suspense, Israel's longest-serving premier was charged by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu immediately hit back in an often vitriolic 15-minute speech, accusing the judiciary, police and others of plotting against him with "false" and "politically motivated" allegations.

"What is going on here is an attempt to stage a coup against the prime minister," he charged in a televised address. "The object of the investigations was to oust the right from government."

He then vowed to stay on as interim premier despite potential court dates and intense political pressure.

"I will continue to lead this country, according to the letter of the law," he said.

Meanwhile, political rival Benny Gantz, who had been trying to form a coalition government, said it was a "very sad" day for Israel to indict a leader, but called on Netanyahu to "step down from his position and focus on the charges against him".

"There is no coup in Israel, but rather those that have barricaded themselves in power," he said.

The 70-year-old premier, nicknamed "Mr Security" and "King Bibi", has been in power since 2009 and dominates Israel's political scene. His indictment had been expected since nearly the beginning of the year. But now that it’s finally happening, the implications are massive. Netanyahu, however is not legally required to resign unless he is convicted and any subsequent appeals process is exhausted, but political pressure is likely to be intense. He may now ask the parliament, or Knesset, to grant him immunity from prosecution.

The charges against Netanyahu range from receiving gifts worth thousands of dollars to a deal to change regulatory frameworks in favour of a media group in exchange for positive coverage. Of the three cases against Netanyahu, the latter, known as Case 4,000, is seen as the most serious and carries bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges. He is alleged to have negotiated with Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Israeli telecommunications giant Bezeq, to secure positive coverage on his Walla! news site in exchange for policies benefiting Bezeq. Elovitch and his wife were also indicted. Similar is the other case -  Case 2,000, which concerns allegations that Netanyahu sought a deal with the owner of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper that would have seen it give him more favourable coverage, as well.

In the meantime, Case 1,000 involves allegations Netanyahu and his family received gifts including luxury cigars, champagne and jewellery from wealthy individuals, estimated to be worth more than 700,000 shekels ($200,000, 185,000 euros), in exchange for financial or personal favours. 

Mandelblit said it was a "hard and sad day" for Israel to indict a leader, but it showed no citizen was above the law.

"The citizens of Israel, all of us, and myself, look up to the elected officials, and first and foremost to the prime minister," Mandelblit said.

"Law enforcement is not a choice. It is not a matter of right or left. It's not a matter of politic," he added.

The next steps in the process remain unclear, with no trial date yet set.

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