Netanyahu denounced what he called the “false” and “politically motivated” allegations, hours after being charged by the attorney general with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denied all wrongdoing.
“What is going on here is an attempt to stage a coup against the prime minister,” Netanyahu said. “The object of the investigations was to oust the right wing from government.”
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced the indictment earlier on Thursday, calling it a “heavy-hearted decision” based only on solid legal evidence.
But Netanyahu said the investigators “weren’t after the truth, they were after me”.
In a 15-minute speech, Netanyahu railed against his political rivals and state institutions, accusing the police and judiciary of bias. The veteran politician argued it was time for an “investigation of the investigators”, and vowed to continue in his position despite potential court dates and intense political pressure.
“I will continue to lead this country, according to the letter of the law,” he said. “I will not allow lies to win.”
The charges raise more uncertainty over who will ultimately lead a country mired in political chaos after two inconclusive elections this year.
Israeli law does not require Netanyahu to step down from the post of prime minister if indicted. The entire process of an indictment and trial could take two years.
As prime minister, he would only be forced to resign from the post if he is eventually convicted, where he could face up to 10 years in prison and/or a fine for bribery charges alone, while fraud and breach of trust carry a prison sentence of up to three years.
Hugh Lovatt, an Israel-Palestine analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the indictment may still not be “the end of the story”.
“Israel will now have to brace for a political roller-coaster ride over the coming months. Now, more than ever, Netanyahu will be fighting for his political and personal life,” said Lovatt.
What are the charges?
In February, Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery, following up on police recommendations.
The investigations were listed as Cases 4,000, 1,000, and 2,000.
The allegations against Netanyahu range from receiving gifts worth thousands of dollars to a deal to change regulatory frameworks in favour of a media group in exchange for favourable press coverage.
Case 1,000 alleges Netanyahu and his wife wrongfully received gifts from Arnon Milchan, a Hollywood producer and Israeli citizen, as well as from Australian billionaire James Packer, in return for political favours.
The gifts included champagne and cigars, according to reports.
In Case 2,000, Netanyahu is suspected to have struck a deal with the owner of Israel’s daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth to receive favourable media coverage in return for legislation that would slow the growth of competing newspaper Israel Hayom.
Of the investigations against Netanyahu, Case 4,000 is seen as the most serious.
He is alleged to have negotiated with Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Israeli telecommunications giant Bezeq, to get positive coverage on his Walla! news site in exchange for policies benefitting Bezeq.
The attorney general’s decision is expected to have a wide-reaching effect not just on the embattled leader but on Israeli politics in general, as the country has been without a government for nearly a year because of political infighting.
Neither Netanyahu nor his centrist rival Benny Gantz has been able to form a coalition government following deadlocked elections in September, with the country edging closer to a third election within 12 months.
Gantz’s Blue and White party has said it will not sit in a government whose leader is facing such charges.
“A prime minister up to his neck in corruption allegations has no public or moral mandate to make fateful decisions for the state of Israel,” the party said after the announcement by the attorney general in a statement.
“There is concern, whether or not the charges prove to be true or without merit, that Netanyahu will make decisions in his own personal interest and for his political survival and not in the national interest.”
‘Sad day for Israel’
Gantz said on Thursday the indictment was “a very sad day for the state of Israel”.
The indictment might permanently damage 70-year-old Netanyahu’s political career and cause allies to break away from him, whereas a reprieve would likely give him a new lease of life.
Netanyahu, a right-winger, who has been in power since 2009, is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and dominates the country’s political scene.
“The other thing is the political question: given the seriousness of these charges, will he be able to maintain his support, especially within his own Likud party?” said Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from West Jerusalem.