JERUSALEM (REUTERS) - JERUSALEM (REUTERS) - Israel's attorney-general announced on Thursday (Feb 28) he intends to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges, a decision coming just six weeks before a closely contested national election.
It was the first time a serving Israeli prime minister has been put on official notice of planned prosecution, and deepened uncertainty over how Netanyahu, a veteran right-wing leader, will fare against a coalition of upstart centrist rivals.
An actual filing of the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust would depend on the outcome of a required hearing, the Justice Ministry said. That could take months to complete.
At that hearing - which could take place after the April 9 election - Netanyahu can try to persuade the attorney-general, Avichai Mandelblit, not to indict him.
His voice brimming with indignation as he addressed the nation during prime-time TV news, Netanyahu dismissed the three criminal cases as a political "witch-hunt" designed to oust him.
"I intend to serve you and the country as prime minister for many more years. But it's up to you," he said, referring to his hopes of winning a fourth consecutive term in April.
"It's not up to the civil servants. It's not up to the television studios. It's not up to the pundits and journalists."
Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully accepting US$264,000-worth of gifts, which prosecutors said included cigars and champagne, from tycoons and dispensing favours in alleged bids for improved coverage by an Israeli newspaper and a website.
He could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum three-year term for fraud and breach of trust.
Israel's shekel weakened against the dollar on the news. It was trading at 3.63 per dollar at 1620 GMT, from 3.6240 before the announcement and down 0.4 per cent versus the US currency from Wednesday.
Opinion polls show a tight race for Netanyahu's Likud party, with sharp gains for a centre-left alliance led by Benny Gantz, a former armed forces chief who has pledged clean government.
'A GREAT PRIME MINISTER'
At the hearing with Mandelblit, the 69-year-old Netanyahu can cite the public interest in arguing against an indictment.
In his statement on Thursday, the prime minister touted what he has achieved for the country: noting the strong economy and ties with world powers that he has cultivated over the last decade.
"This is not to be taken for granted," he said.
Netanyahu would be under no legal requirement to resign, even if indicted. But if he were re-elected it would likely be to lead a coalition, as he does now, and if he were indicted, public pressure could buckle the necesssary alliances.
Already, Gantz said in a statement on Thursday evening he would not join Netanyahu in any future coalition government, given the possible corruption indictment.
US President Donald Trump, asked at a news conference earlier on Thursday about Netanyahu's legal troubles, voiced support for the Israeli leader. Trump and Netanyahu have been in lockstep over policy towards Iran and the Palestinians.
"Well, I just think he has been a great prime minister,"said Trump.
Anshel Pfeffer, author of a recent Netanyahu biography, said on Twitter that Israel was entering "uncharted waters" in which"no one has any idea how being a prime minister under notice of indictment will effect Netanyahu and his government".