JERUSALEM – Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday became Israel’s first prime minister to be indicted in office, on corruption charges, but defiantly condemned the “coup” against him and vowed to hold on to power.
The shock announcement compounded the political chaos gripping Israel, which has been without a government for months and faces the prospect of a third election within one year.
After months of suspense, Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving premier, was charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
Netanyahu immediately hit back with 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 speech.
“The object of the investigations was to oust the right from government.”
He vowed to continue on as interim prime minister despite potential court dates and intense political pressure.
“I will continue to lead this country, according to the letter of the law,” he said.
‘Hard and sad day’
The 70-year-old, who is nicknamed “Mr Security” and “King Bibi”, has been in power since 2009 and dominates the country’s political scene.
The indictment came as crunch talks are due over forming a government, after two inconclusive general elections have left the country’s political system deadlocked.
Netanyahu is not legally required to resign until he is convicted and all appeals are exhausted, but political pressure is likely to be intense.
He may now ask the Israeli 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 favor of a media group in exchange for positive coverage.
Mandelblit said it was a “hard and sad day” for Israeli to indict a leader but the action 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 politics.”
‘Fight for political life’
A perennial fighter, Netanyahu has outlived many political rivals and Hugh Lovatt, Israel-Palestine analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the prime minister wouldn’t give up power easily.
“Now more than ever Netanyahu will be fighting for his political and personal life,” he said.
The next steps in the process remain unclear, with no date yet set for the trial.
They were set to only deepen the political turmoil in Israel, which has been without a stable majority government for nearly a year.
Neither Likud leader Netanyahu nor rival Benny Gantz, head of the centrist Blue and White party, have been able to form a coalition government following deadlocked elections in April and September.
Netanyahu has remained prime minister in an interim capacity.
The Knesset has 21 days remaining to find a candidate who can command the support of the majority of the country’s 120 MPs and the indictment is likely to strengthen former army chief Gantz’s claims.
According to Shlomo Egoz of the Politics and Communications department at Hadassah Academic College, if Likud is legally forced to find a different leader during this period, they will not be able to do so within the 21 days, plunging the country into the third round of elections within one year.
“Elections are closer, because Netanyahu is now weakened,” he said.