The end of King Bibi? Indicted Netanyahu fights for future

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu's indictment on corruption charges prompted speculation Friday that the end of his decade-long tenure as 'King Bibi' is nigh.

The Jewish state woke up to an indicted sitting prime minister for the first time, after the country's attorney general announced late Thursday he had charged the 70-year-old with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

After months of speculation Avichai Mandelblit's decision was the worst possible outcome for Netanyahu, hitting him with the most serious charges.

Israel's longest-serving premier swiftly hit back, vowing to fight on and accusing the police and legal system of bias against the right-wing in an often angry speech.

Any trial is likely months away, and -- if Netanyahu is found guilty -- a final conviction exhausting appeals could take years.

But his political authority is now under more intense scrutiny than ever.

Israel has been without a functioning government for nearly a year, with Netanyahu staying on in an interim capacity after two inconclusive elections in April and September.

Parliament has less than three weeks to find a candidate that can gain the support of more than half of the 120 lawmakers, or a deeply unpopular third election will be called.

For columnist Amit Segal, writing in the Yediot Ahronot daily, "irrespective of the moral and legal questions, the prime minister's political situation is painfully clear: his chances of reaching 61 seats are almost non-existent."

Netanyahu's centrist rival Benny Gantz may now seek to encourage defections either from within the PM's Likud party or from allied right-wing parties.

Gantz himself called on Netanyahu to step down and focus on the corruption allegations late Thursday -- a scenario that would see the premier out of power for the first time in ten years.

But he appeared primed to continue fighting the charges while clinging onto office.

"What is going on here is an attempt to stage a coup against the prime minister," Netanyahu declared in a televised response to the charges.

- 'End is clear' -

Under Israeli law, while ministers cannot remain in place after being indicted, a prime minister is not legally required to resign unless convicted with appeals processes exhausted.

In addition to the premiership, Netanyahu holds portfolios including agriculture and health, positions he will likely have to vacate in the coming days.

The charges against him range from receiving gifts worth thousands of dollars to a deal to change regulation in favour of a media group in exchange for positive coverage.

In the most serious case, known as Case 4,000, he is alleged to have negotiated with the controlling shareholder of Israeli telecommunications giant Bezeq to secure positive coverage on the Walla! news site in exchange for policies benefiting Bezeq.

Commentators said the perennial fighter could be entering his last bout but was likely to go down swinging.

"The indictment that was drafted by the attorney general is a chokehold that took no risks and leaves no maneuvring room," Yehuda Yifrah wrote in the right-wing Makor Rishon Friday.

"The end is clear. The question is how bad the route getting there is going to be."

- Internal threat -

The fatal blow could even come from within Netanyahu's own Likud party, which has to decide whether it backs him to the end or drops him in favour of another candidate for prime minister.

Multiple party officials, including Foreign Minister Israel Katz and Culture Minister Miri Regev, have announced their support for Netanyahu, but others have remained silent since the indictment.

Before Mandelblit's announcement on Thursday, former minister Gideon Saar, who commands significant support inside Likud, called for a party leadership election before a third round of elections takes place.

"I think I will be able to unite the country and the nation," he said.

Ofer Zalzberg, senior Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group, pointed to "a sizeable rebellion... emerging" within Likud.

"It seems the opposition to Netanyahu within the party's senior ranks will increase in the coming days and weeks," he told AFP.