Israel PM faces corruption charges

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-47399539

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Attorney General Avichai MandelblitImage copyright
AFP

Image caption

Benjamin Netanyahu (L) faces possible charges levelled by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit

Israel’s attorney general intends to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges.

Avichai Mandelblit said Mr Netanyahu would face charges of bribery and breach of trust in connection with three cases, pending a final hearing.

The prime minister is alleged to have accepted gifts from wealthy businessmen and dispensed favours to try to get more positive press coverage.

Mr Netanyahu, who is facing an election in April, has denied any wrongdoing.

He has said he is the victim of a left-wing “witch-hunt” intended to topple him ahead of the closely contested election on 9 April.

Mr Netanyahu is due to make a statement at 20:00 local time (18:00 GMT).

The prime minister will have an opportunity to make his case against the indictments at the final hearing, which is likely to take place after the election.

What are the possible charges?

Mr Netanyahu is set to be charged with breach of trust for accepting expensive gifts – including cigars, pink champagne and jewellery – from a film producer.

This was allegedly in exchange for help with a US visa and tax breaks.

In two other cases, he is accused of trying to get more favourable press coverage for himself.

The attorney general says he is considering charges of fraud and breach of trust in both, and bribery in one of them.

What has the reaction been?

Opposition parties have said there is no way Mr Netanyahu should carry on as prime minister if he is charged.

Mr Mandelblit has said the Supreme Court will determine whether he must resign.

Mr Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party has hit back with a strongly worded statement.

It dubbed the attorney general’s move “political persecution”, adding: “Unilateral publication of the attorney general’s announcement just a month before the elections, without giving the prime minister an opportunity to refute these false accusations, is a blatant and unprecedented intervention in the elections.”

What kind of impact could the charges have?

It could be significant, especially as Mr Netanyahu already heads a fragile coalition.

He and his right-wing Likud party face a serious challenge in the elections from a newly-announced centrist alliance led by ex-army chief Benny Gantz and TV journalist-turned-politician Yair Lapid.

And recent polls suggest Likud could lose support and the ability to form a coalition if charges are levelled against the prime minister.

Mr Netanyahu has also come under fire this week for attempting to shore up votes by negotiating a merger of the religious pro-settlement Jewish Home party with the ultra-right Jewish Power party, which includes followers of the late anti-Arab extremist rabbi Meir Kahane.

Two powerful pro-Israel lobby groups in the US, Aipac and the American Jewish Committee, made rare criticism of Mr Netanyahu’s move, describing Jewish Power as a “racist and reprehensible party”.

Can he stay PM?

By Yolande Knell, BBC News, Jerusalem

Benjamin Netanyahu had hoped to make history this year – if he stays in office he’s set to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. But he’s now also a step closer to becoming the first sitting prime minister to be charged with criminal offences.

His Likud party made last-ditch efforts to block publication of this decision at the High Court, arguing it could have a big impact on April’s election, but the move was rejected.

Mr Netanyahu is presumed innocent unless proven otherwise and there is currently no legal barrier to stop him staying in office if he’s re-elected – even if the attorney general makes a final decision to charge him after a hearing due in the coming months.

However, many will question the prime minister’s ability to handle affairs of state if he’s simultaneously defending himself in court.

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