JERUSALEM— Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not react with equanimity when, after three years of investigations, the indictments finally came.
Railing at the Israeli public on television, with no press allowed, Netanyahu savaged Israel’s police and judiciary and all but called for insurrection, repeatedly demanding that “the investigators be investigated!”
As he spoke, the same words were tweeted from his official account.
“They never were pursuing the truth!” an ashen Netanyahu yelled. “They were pursuing me!”
The indictments capped an extraordinary day in Israeli history, as Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced Thursday evening that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases.
It is the first time in Israeli history a prime minister has been indicted while serving.
The dramatic announcement came less than 24 hours after another unprecedented moment in Israeli history, the failure of both candidates chosen by the president to form a government.
“Today is a sad and difficult day,” Attorney General Mandedlblit said in an extraordinary press conference in Jerusalem, declaring his devotion to the rule of law and his respect for many of the prime minister’s achievements.
Mandelblit announced the upcoming indictments in February, pending an October hearing in which, after four years of investigation, Netanyahu’s attorneys were allowed to present final arguments for his innocence.
Netanyahu demanded the establishment of "an independent committee to investigate the system and put an end to this. It's time to investigate the investigators!" he repeated, repeatedly, adding that the public had to demand it. “It's time to investigate the state prosecution who permits tainted investigations!”
He said the corruption charges amounted to “an attempted coup d’état” against a legitimately elected prime minister, and that the entire “tainted, skewed process” was aimed at toppling him.
The pre-indictment hearing appears to have had little effect on the state prosecution, as the 63-page indictment confirms all the charges, laying out an array of misdeeds in damning detail.
Netanyahu has been indicted in three unrelated cases:
Case 1000: Netanyahu is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust for having accepted lavish gifts from two wealthy allies in exchange for political favors.
The indictment charges that Israeli born Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer gave Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, about $280,000 of gifts in exchange for political favors.
Case 2000: Netanyahu is accused of breach of trust and fraud by abusing his position so as to receive positive coverage in the country’s leading daily, Yedioth Ahronoth.
Case 4000: Netanyahu is alleged to have benefited a close ally, media mogul Shaul Elovitch—the head of Bezeq, Israel's largest telecommunications firm—in exchange for positive coverage on Walla News, a website owned by Elovitch.
In charging papers, police said they found evidence that “Netanyahu and those close to him blatantly intervened, sometimes on a daily basis, in content published on the Walla news website, and sought to influence the appointment of senior employees (editors and reporters), while using their ties to Shaul and Iris Elovitch.”
Netanyahu’s immediate future is murky. There is a law, which has never been tested, that allows a prime minister to continue serving, but holds that he must resign at the time of the final court verdict.
In a statement, opposition leader Benny Gantz pushed back at Netanyahu’s claims, saying he “has complete confidence” in law enforcement.
“There is no coup in Israel, but rather those that have barricaded themselves in power.”
“In his appearance tonight, Netanyahu clearly demonstrated that he must step down from his position and focus on the charges against him," Gantz said. "He is well aware that the grave and complex challenges facing the State of Israel, both in terms of security and in the societal and economic arenas, require a prime minister able to invest his full time, energy and attention.”
In an interview, Israel Democracy Institute President Yochanan Plesner said, “We know the prime minister must resign then, but the law does not determine what must happen before that. It remains an open question.”
“Assuming the prime minister will not decide to resign on his own and political system will not determine his fate otherwise, it is close to certain the supreme court will have to decide in this case,” Plesner said.
Israeli law grants every public official the option of requesting immunity from Knesset, which, due to the current electoral stalemate is only an interim Knesset. In consequence, there is no House Committee which could decide on immunity.
“In fact, the political stalemate suspends the entire process until another election, so it buys Netanyahu time,” Plesner said.
Yesterday, as the end of Gantz’s mandate approached and as the likelihood of a third electoral campaign mounted, Netanyahu announced his plan to cancel primary elections in his party, the Likud, thus guaranteeing his position as leader.
But this afternoon brought a taste of things to come, when Likud Knesset member Gidon Saar, who has already announced his intention to run for the party leadership, openly declared a challenge. Referring to Netanyahu’s failure after two electoral campaigns to form a government, he said, “If a new government won’t be formed and we go to a new election, it will not be reasonable that the prime minister will be successful in forming a government after a third election.”
Shile Shas, one of his right-wing religious coalition parties issued a statement in support of Netanyahu, not a single Likud member publicly addressed the bombshell indictments.
Speaking at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, he said, “I think the necessary thing to do, if we are in front of a new election, is to set a Likud leadership primary. I think I will be able to form a government, and I think I will be able to unify the country and the nation.”
An Israel Democracy Institute Poll from last month said a majority of Israelis—53.5 percent—believe Netanyahu should resign immediately upon indictment. Almost half (47 percent) of right-wing voters believe Netanyahu should resign when indicted.