Benjamin Netanyahu has become Israel’s first sitting prime minister to be indicted, raising further uncertainty over who will lead a country mired by political chaos and heading into a third election in a year.
The country’s attorney general Avichai Mandelblit said in a statement on Thursday that Mr Netanyahu was being charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases, known as cases 4000, 2000 and 1000.
The prime minister has repeatedly denied all the charges and said he is a victim of a politically motivated “witch-hunt”. The ruling comes after last month’s four-day hearing with the prime minister’s defence team.
In Case 4000, police have alleged that Mr Netanyahu granted regulatory favours to Israel’s leading telecommunications company, Bezeq, in return for more positive coverage on Walla, a news website belonging to the firm’s owner.
Case 2000 focuses on suspicions Mr Netanyahu negotiated a deal with leading daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth for better coverage in return for promises to limit the circulation of a rival.
Finally in Case 1000, police argue that he received expensive gifts from wealthy friends including Australian billionaire James Packer and Israeli-born Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan in exchange for political favours.
Mr Netanyahu can still remain in office despite the indictment: there is no legal requirement for him to resign.
However, the possibility of indictment has cast a long shadow over his campaign during the last two inconclusive general elections in April and September where he twice failed to form a ruling coalition.
The country is widely expected to head to a third round of elections in Spring next year, after Mr Netanyahu’s chief rival Benny Gantz, the country former army chief, also failed to pull together a government.Mr Netanyahu will be standing trial concurrently - his political opponents have questioned how he can run the country at the same time.
Israeli analysts said that the timing of the indictment “could not be worse for Netanyahu”.
“He just failed, twice, to form a government, and Israel is set to be heading for a third round of elections,” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
She said he will not only be facing competition from other political rivals like Gantz’s Blue and White centrist alliance but also from within his own Likud party.“Ahead of general elections, parties with democratic internal structures, the Likud included, generally hold primaries for the list and the leadership of the party.
Mr Netanyahu is now trying to prevent the primaries for the leadership of the party, which he has been able to prevent since 2014 by taking over the Likud's internal democratic institutions. Gidon Saar, the prime minister's only real opponent thus far inside the Likud list, is demanding that primaries for the leadership be held,” she said.
“Some resistance remains inside the party, and Netanyahu's failures to form a government and indictments may finally lead to the emergence of real resistance to his rule of the Likud party.