David M. Halbfinger
c.2019 The New York Times Company
JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted Thursday on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges in a set of long-running corruption cases, immediately throwing his political future into doubt and heightening the uncertainty and chaos surrounding Israel’s fitful, yearlong struggle to choose its next leader.
Netanyahu, 70, who in July became the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, now also has the distinction of being the first to be indicted while in office.
The cases against Netanyahu involve allegations of giving or offering lucrative official favors to several media tycoons in exchange for either favorable coverage in news outlets or gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. He has rejected the charges as false and politically motivated.
Netanyahu is not legally required to step down. But with Israel’s political system already in uncharted territory, having failed to settle upon a new prime minister despite two elections and three attempts at forming a government since April, the criminal case against him could make it far more difficult for him to retain power.
After his chief rival, Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party, said Wednesday that he was unable to form a government, that task shifted to Parliament. If no lawmaker is successful in assembling a 61-seat majority over the next three weeks, a third round of elections will be called.
While Netanyahu has maintained strong support from his political base so far, while criminal charges against him were still uncertain, polls have shown that a formal indictment would change many minds, including among many right-wing voters.
“We’ve seen consistently that a big majority of the public, about two-thirds, do not think a prime minister can serve and at the same time try to clear his name in court,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
There were already signs of unrest in Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, as a popular younger lawmaker, Gideon Saar, called Thursday for a primary contest for prime minister, and said he would be a contender.
Even if Netanyahu fends off intraparty challengers, and assembles a viable coalition in Parliament, Plesner said that the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, might balk at assigning him the task of forming a government while he awaits trial.
In addition, critics are expected to petition the Supreme Court to rule that Netanyahu must step down.