Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Israel's attorney general announced he intends to indict Netanyahu on corruption charges. (face to face/Zuma Press/TNS)

Israeli AG intends to file corruption indictment against Netanyahu

TEL AVIV — Israel’s attorney general announced on Thursday that he intends to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said he is seeking to press charges against Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, pending a hearing.

The announcement comes just over a month before Israel’s general elections.

The different charges relate to three separate corruption cases.

In one case, Netanyahu is accused of having received gifts from billionaires in exchange for his assistance in business and personal areas.

In another case, he is accused of striking a deal with the publisher of a critical newspaper to improve its coverage of him in exchange for weakening a pro-Netanyahu paper.

In the final case, Netanyahu allegedly ordered favourable rulings for the country’s largest telecommunications firm in exchange for positive coverage on a news site owned by that firm’s controlling shareholder.

In the first two cases the attorney general intends to press charges of fraud and breach of trust and in the final case bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

The attorney general’s decision is not final and can be altered after a hearing.

Netanyahu’s Likud party said in response to the decision: “No one is surprised by the attorney general’s announcement that came after three years of tremendous pressure exerted on him by the media, the Left and legal officials in order to file an indictment against the prime minister at any cost — even when there is nothing.”

The party slammed the decision as “political persecution.”

Netanyahu has rejected all accusations against him and branded them a “witch-hunt.”

He has also highlighted that the law does not require him to resign before a conviction.

On Thursday, in anticipation of the announcement, Netanyahu said the investigations were an attempt to kill his political career and described them as a “house of cards that will entirely collapse.”

Israeli law obligates a written or in-person hearing before a decision to indict for an infringement of criminal law, according to the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI).

The hearing must take place within 30 days of an announcement to issue an indictment, unless an extension is granted. Complex cases, however, often take several months between the recommendation to indict and the hearing, the IDI notes.

A bribery charge is the most serious of the possible charges against Netanyahu.

Guy Lurie, a lawyer from IDI, told dpa that a bribery conviction can carry an up to ten-year jail sentence. A conviction of fraud and breach of trust carries a maximum of three years imprisonment.

If Netanyahu is indicted while still in office, it would be the first time in Israel’s history that an indictment has been filed against a sitting prime minister.

US President Donald Trump was asked about Netanyahu’s legal battle during a press conference in Hanoi, ahead of Mandelblit’s announcement.

“Well I just think he’s been a great prime minister, I don’t know about his difficulty,” Trump responded. “He’s done a great job as prime minister — he’s tough, he’s smart, he’s strong.”

A survey conducted earlier this month by the Guttman Centre at the Israel Democracy Institute found that 52 per cent of Israeli voters believed that Netanyahu should resign if the attorney general recommended that he be indicted. Some 35.5 per cent believe he can continue serving as prime minister, the poll found.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert stepped down in 2008, before the attorney general announced his decision to indict him for bribery and obstruction of justice. Netanyahu, who was leader of the opposition at the time, called for Olmert’s resignation during the investigation.

Olmert was sentenced to 19 months in prison, which he began in February 2016, and was released three months early.

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