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WORLD | 28-02-2019 16:20

Israel's attorney general recommends graft charges against PM Netanyahu

Netanyahu denies allegations, claiming they are part of conspiratorial 'witch hunt' by opposition in a press conference.

Israel's attorney general has recommended Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted for bribery and breach of trust in a series of corruption cases, a momentous move that shakes up the Middle-eastern nation's election campaign and could spell the end of the prime minister's illustrious political career.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his decision after more than two years of intense investigations.

Police had recommended indicting Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three different cases that ranged from accepting expensive gifts from wealthy allies to allegedly trading influence for more favourable press coverage.

The final decision on indictment will only take place after a hearing, where Israel's longest-serving prime minister is given the opportunity to defend himself. That process is expected to take many months and be completed long after the April 9 elections.

But the recommendations immediately cast a cloud over the campaign and Netanyahu's future.

An indictment would mark the first time in Israeli history that a sitting prime minister has been charged with a crime. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert served time in prison for corruption, but had already resigned by the time he was charged.

 ‘Witch hunt’

Netanyahu doesn't seem to be backing down. He denies any wrongdoing and calls the various allegations a media-orchestrated ‘witch hunt’ aimed at removing him from office.

"We're talking about political persecution," his Likud party said in a statement.

He has vowed to carry on and is deadlocked in the polls, 40 days before Israelis go to vote.

Today, at a press conference in Jerusalem, Netanyahu held the opposition entirely responsible for these allegations, declaring: "They have brought my family through 7 levels of hell."

In a last-ditch effort to prevent the public release of an indictment, Likud petitioned the Supreme Court to have it delayed until after the elections. But that request was rejected Thursday afternoon, potentially clearing the way for an announcement from the attorney general.

While Israeli prime ministers are not required by law to resign if charged, the prospect of a prime minister standing trial while simultaneously running the country would be unchartered territory.

Mandelblit's decision could either galvanize Netanyahu's hard-line supporters who see him as a victim of an overzealous prosecution or turn more moderate backers against him who have tired of his lengthy rule tainted by long-standing accusations of corruption and hedonism.

‘He has done a great job as PM’ says Trump

US President Donald Trump, with whom Netanyahu has forged a close connection, offered the Israeli leader a boost ahead of the expected announcement.

“I can say this, he’s done a great job as prime minister,” Trump said in Hanoi after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

“He’s tough, smart, and strong. He’s very defensive, his military has been built up a lot,” he declared.

In the press conference today, Netanyahu thanked Trump for ‘his very strong support of Israel… He helps me to protect our country’

Netanyahu rushed back Wednesday from a diplomatic mission to Moscow, and a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, to prepare for his rebuttal to the charges today.

 The most serious allegations against Netanyahu involve his relationship with Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Israel's telecom giant Bezeq.

Mandelblit recommended a bribery charge in the case based on evidence collected that confidants of Netanyahu promoted regulatory changes worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Bezeq.

In exchange, they believe Netanyahu used his connections with Elovitch to receive positive press coverage on Bezeq's popular subsidiary news site Walla. Police have said their investigation concluded that Netanyahu and Elovitch engaged in a "bribe-based relationship."  A related charge against Netanyahu's wife, Sara, was dropped.

Lavish gifts

Mandelblit's statement said there was a unanimous opinion among investigators that the relationship between Netanyahu and the Elovitches constituted bribery.

"Everyone agreed there was enough evidence to prove that benefits were given to Netanyahu by Elovitch and his wife Iris Elovitch and were taken by Netanyahu in return for actions he took as part of his job," it said.

Despite this, Netanyahu argued today that he is ‘the first person in history accused of bribery for trying to get a positive reaction from the press’

It has also been recommended that Netanyahu is indicted over accepting nearly US$300,000 in gifts from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.

Police say that in return for lavish gifts that included jewellery, expensive cigars and champagne, Netanyahu had operated on Milchan's behalf on US visa matters, tried to legislate a generous tax break for him and sought to promote his interests in the Israeli media market.

Packer reportedly sought Israeli residency status for tax purposes and Netanyahu has said everything he received were gifts from friends. Longtime aide Ari Harow is a state witness in this case.

Favourable coverage

Furthermore, Netanyahu allegedly offered to introduce legislation to the benefit of a newspaper publisher that would weaken his publication's main rival in return for more favourable coverage.

Netanyahu was recorded asking Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the Yediot Ahronot daily, for positive coverage in exchange for helping to weaken Israel Hayom, a free pro-Netanyahu newspaper that had cut into Yediot's business.

Israel Hayom is financed by Netanyahu's US billionaire friend Sheldon Adelson and largely serves as the prime minister's mouthpiece.

Netanyahu has noted that the bill never passed and that he had even dissolved his coalition and called a new election in 2015 because of his opposition to the proposal.

Harow is a state witness in this case, too. Mandelblit recommends charging Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust.

Mandelblit's office said the timing of Netanyahu's hearing would be set in the near future in coordination with the prime minister's lawyers.

- TIMES/AFP/AP

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