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Israeli PM Netanyahu rejects indictment

Updated: 2019-11-22 09:16

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been under investigation for three years and has consistently denied any wrong-doing.[Photo/Agencies]

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected his indictment on an array of corruption charges, saying the country is witnessing an "attempted coup" against him.

In a defiant statement Thursday, Netanyahu said the indictment stemmed from "false accusations" and a systematically "tainted investigation." He spoke after the attorney general announced his indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three long-running corruption cases.

Netanyahu was unable to form a government following unprecedented back-to-back elections this year, in part because of his legal woes, and a third vote could be held within months.

Netanyahu charged with corruption, deepening Israel's political crisis

The attorney general's announcement comes as Israel finds itself in muddy political waters, after two inconclusive elections that have left the country with an interim government for almost a year.

Netanyahu has been under investigation for three years and has consistently denied any wrong-doing. Among other offenses, he is charged with giving benefits worth of hundreds of millions of US dollars, in return for favorable headlines in a popular news website. The charges could carry 10 years or more sentence in prison.

"I have given my life to this country," Netanyahu said in a statement after the announcement of the attorney general. "This is an attempt to overthrow a prime minister through legal means."

According to Israeli law, a prime minister is not required to resign if indicted. He can remain in power until a final verdict is handed down. However, political pressure might mount against him. His legal status was a hot-topic of the election campaigns.

It is important to note that because Netanyahu is now the leader of an interim government, several legal experts have questioned whether the law that allows a prime minister to remain in office under indictment is applicable to him.

This matter has yet to be settled and leaves many question marks about the legality of giving Netanyahu the mandate to form a government.

"This is a sad and difficult day," said Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, as he announced the decision. "It was a difficult decision for me. I decided this with a heavy but confident heart."

Netanyahu, Israel's longest serving leader, is now in a difficult position. After two failed attempts to form a government, the heavy weight of an indictment has the potential of crippling him when he is trying to recruit potential coalition partners.

Netanyahu currently leads a bloc of right-wing and ultra-orthodox Jewish parties who have vowed to stand behind him even if he is indicted.

As the leader of the Likud party, Netanyahu's govern until now has been steadfast with no real contestant to his leadership within the party.

Now, as the indictment becomes official, it remains to be seen whether members of his party will dare to run against him.

Israel is now in a period of 21 days during which anyone who can enlist a majority of parliament members can attempt to form a government.

However, if Netanyahu's position in the Likud remains strong, it could be years before he is ousted.

"He will hang in there and tell the public that he is innocent until proven guilty," said Gideon Rahat, professor of the Political Science Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"He is now fighting for his life. The question is how far his supporters will stay with him," Rahat added.

Netanyahu's political prowess in the Likud, and the right wing as a whole "is unprecedented," Rahat told Xinhua. "He will use this power to avoid prison."

"He skillfully managed to suppress any candidate who showed potential of replacing him," Rahat added.

So as long as Netanyahu's power in the Likud remains solid, a third round of election seems to be the most probable outcome after the 21 days are over. Now that the indictment is official, for Netanyahu, an election is the optimal course.

"Elections are closer, because Netanyahu is now weakened," said Shlomo Egoz of the Politics and Communications department at Hadassah Academic College.

According to Egoz, if the Likud is legally forced to find a different leader during this period, they will not be able to do so within the 21 days, plunging the country into the third round of election within one year.

Currently, Netanyahu's main rival is Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party. While Gantz has said that his desire is to form a national unity government with the Likud, his quick rise to popularity in Israel is greatly because of his promise that he will not sit with a prime minister under indictment.

Although he secured one more mandate than the Likud in the last election, he failed to muster the number of mandates necessary to form a government.

"Gantz is still incapable of forming a government," said Egoz. "The right bloc is much more unified than the centrist-left bloc and this was very evident during coalition negotiations."

After two round of elections, several attempts to form a government and Netanyahu's legal affairs, Israel finds itself in a political deadlock that might not end in the near future.

Polls conducted on Thursday by Israeli media outlets show no major change in the political map. A poll by channel 12 showed 46 percent of the Israeli public believes Netanyahu should resign in light of the indictment.

"The notion of justice is burning in me," said Netanyahu. "I will not let this lie win. I will continue to lead this country, according to the law."

"The end of the deadlock is directly connected to the end of the Netanyahu era," said Egoz.

If Netanyahu's feisty appearance after the attorney general announced the indictment is anything to go by, he is determined to stay in the political arena as the prime minister. This means more political uncertainty for Israel.


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