BINYAMIN NETANYAHU has long hoped to make history this year. On April 9th, when Israel holds a general election, he aims to equal the record of the country’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, by racking up a fifth election victory. Following that, in July, he envisions becoming Israel’s longest-serving leader. He may yet achieve those milestones, but on February 28th he made history of a different sort, becoming Israel’s first sitting prime minister to be indicted, pending a hearing.
Bribery, fraud and breach of trust are Mr Netanyahu’s alleged crimes. “You have hurt the image of public service and public faith in it,” Avichai Mandelblit, the attorney-general, wrote in his decision. “You acted in a conflict of interests, you abused your authority while taking into account other considerations that relate to your personal interests and the interests of your family. You corrupted public servants working under you.”
Mr Netanyahu’s lawyers will have an opportunity to dispute the accusations in a pre-trial hearing before formal charges are filed. He himself is already on the attack, saying: “This house of cards will collapse soon.” But his oft-made claim about the investigation, that “there will be nothing, because there is nothing”, is starting to sound less convincing.
The accusations stem from three cases. In the first, known as Case 1000, the police allege he accepted gifts of jewellery, champagne and Cuban cigars, worth more than $200,000, from rich patrons in return for political favours. He faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in that case. In the second, Case 2000, he is said to have discussed colluding with a newspaper publisher to curb the distribution of a competitor in exchange for favourable coverage. No deal was agreed on, but he still faces a charge of breach of trust.
The third case, known as Case 4000, carries the greatest risk for Mr Netanyahu. In that one he is alleged to have intervened in regulatory decisions on behalf of Bezeq, a telecommunications giant, in return for gauzy coverage on Walla!, one of Israel’s most popular websites, which is owned by the company. The potential charges are fraud, breach of trust and bribery. Convictions could result in jail time.
Police have recommended indicting Mr Netanyahu before, in unrelated cases, only for previous attorneys-general to let him off with a public reprimand. But it is difficult to see how the most recent cases do not go to trial. Police investigators and state attorneys took more than three years to assemble them. Among the dozens of witnesses for the prosecution will be three former close aides to the prime minister. Mr Mandelblit, who will have the final say, served as Mr Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary before the prime minister appointed him to his current job. He has deliberated long and hard over the decision.
Israel’s legal system has already proved that no one is above the law. A past prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has served jail time for bribery; a former president, Moshe Katzav, was convicted of rape. Still, Mr Netanyahu insists that the accusations against him are much ado about nothing. He does not deny accepting gifts from friends and trying to influence the media. But he claims never to have traded favours. Mr Netanyahu says he is the victim of a conspiracy by leftists who are trying to use the legal system to bring him down, since they cannot defeat him at the ballot box.
The law does not require an indicted prime minister to step down. Mr Olmert resigned in advance of being indicted; Yitzhak Rabin, another former prime minister, avoided charges over an illegal bank account by stepping down. There is a slim chance that Mr Netanyahu would resign as part of a plea deal, saving himself from an enormous legal bill, but for now he appears intent on fighting the charges and, if he wins in April, even standing trial while serving as prime minister—though that would almost certainly be the subject of a legal challenge.
It may not get to that point. Mr Netanyahu’s top two opponents in the election—Benny Gantz, a former army chief of staff, and Yair Lapid, a former television personality—joined forces on February 21st. Their new centrist party, called Blue and White, after the colours of Israel’s flag, has begun attracting right-wing voters no longer enamoured with the prime minister. It is polling higher than his Likud party.
Much can change before election day. Most polls still give Mr Netanyahu’s coalition of nationalist and religious parties a small majority in the next Knesset. The investigations are a “witch-hunt”, he says, the reports of corruption are “fake news”; Israelis should vote for him and stick it to the liberal elite.
His political allies believe many will, so they have not yet abandoned him. But he is beginning to look desperate. He recently brokered an electoral pact between Jewish Home, a religious party in his coalition, and Jewish Power, a racist party that encourages the emigration of all Arabs. Until recently, even Likud considered Jewish Power beyond the pale. The union, though, helps to ensure that the two parties will reach the minimum threshold of 3.25% of the vote required to take seats in the Knesset, maximising right-wing votes.
Critics of Mr Netanyahu say that he is harming Israeli democracy—and fear that he will do more damage if he is re-elected. He has turned his supporters against once-respected state bodies, such as the judiciary. There are rumours that, if he wins, he will try to pass a law that grants prime ministers immunity from prosecution while in office. In the meantime, he will try to turn the election into a referendum, in which voters are to choose between the prime minister and his prosecutors. Increasingly, Mr Netanyahu is ready to weaken Israel’s institutions in an attempt to ensure his political survival.
Editor’s note (February 28th 2019): Soon after The Economist went to press, the attorney-general of Israel indicted the prime minister, pending a hearing. This piece has been substantially updated, and differs from the version in print, which was published before the attorney-general’s announcement.