JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Benjamin Netanyahu is the dominant Israeli politician of his generation. No rival comes close in political skill to the Likud Party leader known widely as “Bibi”.
But on Thursday, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit said he intends to indict Netanyahu in three corruption cases on charges of bribery and fraud and breach of trust, pending a pre-trial hearing. The announcement comes just 40 days before Netanyahu seeks re-election at the April 9 national ballot.
Here’s a guide to Netanyahu’s political and legal prospects.
Netanyahu faces charges in three corruption cases:
CASE 4000 alleges that Netanyahu granted regulatory favours to Israel’s leading telecommunications company, Bezeq Telecom Israel, in return for positive coverage on a news website controlled by the company’s former chairman.
The attorney-general said he intends to charge Netanyahu with bribery and fraud and breach of trust in that case.
CASE 1000 alleges that Netanyahu wrongfully received gifts from Arnon Milchan, a prominent Hollywood producer and Israeli citizen, and Australian billionaire businessman James Packer, including champagne and cigars. Both Packer and Milchan deny wrongdoing.
The attorney-general said he intends to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust in that case. Milchan will not be charged, according to the attorney-general.
CASE 2000 - Netanyahu is suspected of negotiating a deal with the owner of Israel’s best-selling daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, for better coverage in return for legislation that would slow the growth of a rival daily newspaper.
The attorney-general said he intends to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust in that case.
No. Netanyahu is under no strict legal obligation to quit. He is seeking a renewed mandate from the people in the April 9 election and has indicated that he intends to remain in office while pursuing a legal battle. Some commentators say he may be seeking an election win as leverage while negotiating a plea deal with the attorney general.
No. Netanyahu will have a pre-trial-hearing with the attorney-general, in which his attorneys can argue for the charges to be scrapped or reduced. That process can take weeks, if not months.
Bribery charges carry a sentence of up to 10 years in jail and/or a fine. Fraud and breach of trust carry a prison sentence of up to three years.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a politically orchestrated “witch-hunt” by the media and the left.
The election race has turned into a real contest, after early polls showed Netanyahu’s Likud party on course for a sure victory and formation of a governing right-wing coalition. But a new alliance between his strongest opponents, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz and ex-finance minister Yair Lapid, could tip the balance in favour of a centre-left bloc. The announcement of possible criminal charges could see Netanyahu’s popularity fall.
Many Israeli voters like his security-first approach to politics. They admire his fluency in English and decades of experience which give him an international stature that no other Israeli politician can presently rival. And the Israeli economy is strong.
Netanyahu enjoys a close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, who backed his consistent opposition to an Iran nuclear deal negotiated under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
Trump’s decisions to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the U.S. Embassy to the city angered Palestinians and delighted many Israelis, who saw Netanyahu’s influence in both decisions.
But a promised U.S. peace plan that would require compromises from Netanyahu and the Palestinians could lead to friction between Israel and Washington.
Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, William Maclean