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Charges against Netanyahu leave Israel in limbo – with the spectre of conflict the only certainty

It was arguably one of the most anticipated decisions in Israel’s history, and it threw the country into completely unchartered waters, yet again.

Attorney general Avichai Mandelblit announced on Thursday that Benjamin Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in a case dubbed “4000” as well as fraud and breach of trust in cases 1000 and 2000.

And so, the country’s longest serving prime minister won the inglorious new accolade of becoming its first sitting premier to be indicted.

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The cataclysmic announcement came at a point some weeks before parliament was likely to announce Israel’s third general election in under a year, which is also a first-ever occurrence. The country’s political system will to have to navigate the storm with no precedent to guide it.

It is a fool’s errand to try to predict what the final outcome will be, but there are some clear indications.

As it stands under Israeli law, if found guilty the prime minister could face up to 10 years in prison on the bribery charges, and three years for fraud and breach of trust.

Mr Netanyahu, who called the indictment an “attempted coup”, is going to fight tooth and nail to stay in power and away from criminal proceedings.

He has already launched a boisterous campaign to delegitimise the proceedings by dismissing it as a “witch hunt” against him, echoing the rhetoric of his US ally Donald Trump. He has mobilised his supporters with several campaigns, including an Instagram story where he compared the corruption allegations against him to an omelette. 

He has also been accused of allegedly trying to push through legislation which could defang the judiciary. 

The trial will only stoke that rage and further split an already bitterly divided country at a very troubled time – just a week ago there were fears of a war between Israel and Gaza might erupt.

For Mr Netanyahu, though, the initial battle will be for immunity, which he can only be granted if he remains in office.

Since both Mr Netanyahu and his chief rival Benny Gantz, the country’s former army chief, failed to form a government after the September elections, for the next few weeks members of the Knesset (MKs) can try to create a ruling coalition provided they can get enough colleagues to back them.

Mr Netanyahu, as an MK, can also try his hand once again at government-building. Or, more likely, if a third election is called, he will be forced to fight one of the fiercest campaigns of his career under the long shadow of indictment and two previous failed attempts to form a government.

This leaves him very vulnerable to Mr Gantz who heads the centrist Blue and White alliance with opposition leader Yair Lapid and several other former generals.

Shortly after the attorney-general’s announcement Blue and White issued a statement saying Mr Netanyahu was “up to his neck in corruption allegations” and so had “no public or moral mandate to make fateful decision for Israel”. They will play that card again and again if elections go ahead next spring.

But in addition to that Mr Netanyahu is also vulnerable to rivals within his own Likud party like rising star Gidon Saar, a parliamentarian who already this year has indicated he would be willing to take on the incumbent if the party held primaries.

Internal or external rebellion aside, the process will be long.

Under Israeli law Mr Netanyahu has 30 days to request that parliament grant him immunity – and it is almost certain he will do so.

The slight hitch is that since the country’s first inconclusive elections in April, the body within the parliament empowered to decide his request has yet to be appointed.

And so, there will be a stalemate while parliament decides whether to appoint that body or wait until the upcoming elections. Without the decision on his immunity request no legal proceedings can begin. 

And even then, if he is granted immunity it is not watertight, as any Israeli citizen can appeal the decision to the High Court, which has intervened in similar cases in the past.

Mr Netanyahu may try to push through yet more legislation to defang the judiciary to seal those cracks in the law.

That will only spark outrage.

In short, a lot is unclear, and much remains unknown. The only certainty is the spectre of conflict on the horizon.

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