Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and bribery relating to a series of corruption scandals.
Allegations against Mr Netanyahu include suspicions that he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars of champagne and cigars from billionaire friends, offered to trade favors with a newspaper publisher, and used his influence to help a wealthy telecom magnate in exchange for favorable coverage on a popular news site.
The case marks the first time in Israeli history that a sitting prime minister has been charged with a crime, plunging the country into unchartered legal and constitutional waters.
Mr Netanyahu, who came to power in 2009, is under no immediate obligation to resign as prime minister but his opponents are likely to bring immediate cases before the supreme court calling on him to step aside.
Under Israeli law, cabinet ministers must resign if they are charged with a crime but the law is not explicit on what should happen in the event of a prime minister facing indictment.
The attorney general’s decision is a significant political blow to Mr Netanyahu, who is fighting for his political survival after holding power for 13 years, making him the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history.
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The country is in the midst of an unprecedented political chaos after indecisive elections in April and September left both Mr Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, his centrist rival, unable to form a government.
Israel now appears to be lurching towards a third election in the spring to break the deadlock. Mr Netanyahu will now head into the campaign with the lodestone of criminal charges hanging around his neck.
But even before he faces the voters he is at risk of a potential coup inside his own Likud party, where a younger generation of ambitious ministers have so far stayed loyal to him but may be unnerved by the corruption charges.
Gideon Saar, a former Likud minister, on Thursday made the most open challenge yet to Mr Netanyahu’s authority. Speaking at a conference, he said it was “not reasonable” to expect that the prime minister could form a government after third elections, given that he had failed twice already.
Mr Saar called for a leadership contest within the Likud and said he would stand against Mr Netanyahu.
Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, gave voice to the sentiment of many Israelis on Thursday at the prospect of holding a third round of elections in less than 12 months. “This politics of disruption has to stop,” he said. Prosecutors said Mr Netanyahu should stand trial on all the cases they investigated.
The most serious is known as Case 4000, an allegation that Mr Netanyahu used his position to illegally change regulations to benefit the Israeli telecoms giant Beezq. In return, he allegedly sought more positive coverage from a news website owned by Bezeq’s main shareholder.
In another case, known as Case 2000, he is accused of offering a corrupt deal with the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth to help weaken a rival paper in return for better coverage.
Finally, in Case 1000, he is alleged to have illegally accepted lavish gifts from wealthy businessmen, including champagne, cigars, and jewellery.
Mr Netanyahu denies breaking the law in any of the cases.
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