Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced the indictment after three years of probes into the prime minister’s relationships with wealthy friends. Mr Netanyahu is accused of accepting expensive gifts in exchange for political favours, and doing deals to get good press coverage. Mr Mandelblit insisted he was not politically motivated but had acted professionally to uphold the law. The force of Mr Netanyahu’s response alarmed observers of Israel’s political scene. “He will set everything ablaze,” wrote Ben Caspit of Maariv, a daily newspaper. “He won’t stop until all is rubble.” Whatever the case, this certainly is uncharted territory. It’s the first time a sitting prime minister in Israel has been indicted with criminal charges. And it comes in the midst of an unprecedented political stalemate.
Mr Netanyahu and his main political opponent Benny Gantz have both failed to form a government after two rounds of inconclusive elections. The indictment seems to have made the chances of cobbling together a working coalition even more remote, increasing the prospect of another return to the ballot box. A lot will depend on senior members of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party. Until now they have maintained their tribal loyalty to the prime minister, but he is facing a possible challenge from within. The education minister, Gideon Saar, has called for party primaries to replace him. There may well yet be others. There may also be shifts in political alignments as the right-wing parties allied with Likud assess the price to be paid in the event of another election under Mr Netanyahu’s leadership. There’s little doubt amongst political observers that Mr Netanyahu wants an election, which at the very least would buy him time.
He’s been preoccupied with efforts to form a right-wing government that would vote to grant him immunity from prosecution. Despite failing to do so, his status as a member of the Knesset gives him 30 days to ask the legislative body to grant him such immunity. The indictment cannot be formally filed unless this process happens. But that request for immunity cannot be made until there is a functioning government. There isn’t one now and won’t be for even longer if Israelis are forced to vote yet again. That would give the prime minister more room to manoeuvre, but could also increase the pressure on him to step down. His political opponents are making those demands, and even some pro-Netanyahu media outlets are saying it would be a good idea.
Israeli law does not require the prime minister to leave office if indicted, but it’s never been tested with a concrete case. There are some who fear that an election would be a “civil war without arms” between Mr Netanyahu’s energised base and Israelis who are fed up with his legal woes and attacks on the country’s institutions. Others see an opportunity. The prime minister’s criticism of the media and his call to “investigate the investigators” has drawn comparisons with his close ally, US President Donald Trump. Except for a key difference, writes Gil Hoffman in the right-wing Jerusalem Post: “In Israel a prime minister can be ousted much easier than the president of the United States… because our elections are not limited to every four years.” And on Thursday night, a third one in less than 12 months became almost inevitable. (BBC News)