JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted Thursday in a series of corruption cases, throwing Israel’s paralyzed political system into further disarray and threatening his 10-year grip on power. He rejected calls to resign, angrily accusing prosecutors of staging “an attempted coup.”
The first-ever charges against a sitting Israeli prime minister capped a three-year investigation, with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit indicting Netanyahu for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes.
“A day in which the attorney general decides to serve an indictment against a seated prime minister for serious crimes of corrupt governance is a heavy and sad day, for the Israeli public and for me personally,” Mandelblit, who was appointed by Netanyahu, told reporters.
The indictment does not require the 70-year-old Netanyahu to resign, but it significantly weakens him at a time when Israel’s political parties appear to be limping toward a third election in under a year.
An ashen-faced Netanyahu appeared on national TV late Thursday, claiming he was the victim of a grand conspiracy by police and prosecutors who had intimidated key witnesses into testifying against him.
He defiantly claimed the indictment stemmed from “false accusations” and a systematically “tainted investigation,” saying the country was witnessing an “attempted coup” against him.
“Police and investigators are not above the law,” he said. “The time has come to investigate
Netanyahu is desperate to remain in office to fight the charges. Under Israeli law, public officials are required to resign if charged with a crime. But that law does not apply to the prime minister, who can use his office as a bully pulpit against prosecutors and try to push parliament to grant him immunity from prosecution.
As the investigation gained steam in recent months, Netanyahu has repeatedly lashed out at what he sees as a hostile media, police and justice system. Observers have compared his tactics to those of his good friend, U.S. President Donald Trump, who has used similar language to rally his base during an accelerating impeachment hearing.
Several dozen supporters and opponents of Netanyahu staged rival demonstrations outside the prime minister’s official residence Thursday night. Police kept the groups apart and there were no reports of violence.
Mandelblit rejected accusations that his decision was politically motivated and said he had acted solely out of professional considerations. He criticized the often-heated pressure campaigns by Netanyahu’s supporters and foes to sway his decision, which came after months of deliberations. Both sides had staged demonstrations outside or near his home.
According to the indictment, Netanyahu 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.
Netanyahu becomes Israel’s first sitting prime minister to be charged with a crime. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was forced to resign a decade ago ahead of a corruption indictment that later sent him to prison for 16 months.