- - Thursday, February 28, 2019

JERUSALEM — A defiant Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Thursday to fight a looming indictment on corruption charges, portraying his adversaries as leftists who were abusing the legal system to destabilize the country and end his decade-long hold on power less than six weeks before national elections.

In a legal ordeal that has long dogged the hawkish prime minister and his family, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit confirmed Thursday he plans to indict Mr. Netanyahu on a series of corruption charges, pending a final hearing. A Justice Ministry statement said Mr. Netanyahu will be charged with accepting illegal personal gifts and of bribery for promoting regulatory changes worth hundreds of millions of dollars to telecom giant Bezeq in return for positive press coverage in Bezeq’s popular subsidiary news site Walla.

The prime minister could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum three-year term for fraud and breach of trust.

Mr. Netanyahu immediately denounced the case on national TV. He called it a politically motivated “witch hunt” and “blood libel” designed to tip the April 9 election in which he is seeking a fifth term.

“Don’t let this witch hunt affect you,” he told Israeli voters.



Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party supporters were also angered that, despite Thursday’s statement, any formal indictment may be months away.

But facing declining poll numbers, controversy over a recent Likud party video and a rising challenge from a centrist political alliance led by former generals, Mr. Netanyahu has played up his international stature and the benefits it brings for Israel. He pointed to a recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and positive comments from President Trump to underscore his global role.

He also referenced a letter from American lawyer Alan Dershowitz arguing that bringing such a case so shortly before the election would undermine democracy.

Opposition pounces

Mr. Netanyahu’s political rivals quickly seized on the developments.

Benny Gantz, the former general who is heading an unexpectedly strong centrist challenge in the April election, said Mr. Netanyahu should resign given the amount of time he will have to devote to his mounting ethical and legal problems.

Being prime minister, Mr. Gantz told reporters Thursday evening, cannot be a “part-time job.”

“The state of Israel is worthy of more than this,” he said.

According to Mr. Mandelblit and Israeli prosecutors, two cases, dubbed case 2000 and case 4000, relate to attempts by Mr. Netanyahu to effectively purchase favorable media coverage. A third, case 1000, centers on illicit gifts, including expensive cigars and premium champagne that the prime minister allegedly accepted.

Mr. Netanyahu and his surrogates have sought to portray his adversaries as leftists, a term the prime minister used eight times in his Thursday speech. His Likud is running under the banner of “Strong. Right,” while denouncing Mr. Gantz’s Blue and White alliance as “weak” and leftist.

The Blue and White party was formed in a last-minute alliance between Mr. Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, and Knesset opposition leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. Mr. Gantz has recruited two other former chiefs of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon, to his party. All three of them served under Mr. Netanyahu — Mr. Ya’alon as a minister of defense from 2013 to 2016 and Mr. Gantz as chief of staff from 2011 to 2015.

Mr. Netanyahu portrays himself as the national security candidate who has brought safety and economic success to the country. His campaign advertising plays up his ties to world leaders, including Mr. Trump, who is popular with many voters here for his strong support of Israel, his tough line with Iran and the Palestinian Authority, and his decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Mr. Netanyahu has sought to consolidate the right-wing parties before the elections, but he has faced criticism — including a rare rebuke from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — for encouraging an extreme-right party to form an alliance with a religious right-wing party.

Political strategists said Mr. Netanyahu is angling to frustrate any kind of centrist governing alliance, even if Likud finishes second in the race for the 120 seats in the Knesset. Mr. Gantz has said his new party won’t join a coalition with Mr. Netanyahu and Likud, which creates limits to his coalition options after the vote.

The strategy worked for Mr. Netanyahu a decade ago when Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party came in first but failed to create a coalition.

Mr. Netanyahu’s intense cultivation of Mr. Trump paid off with a strong endorsement from the American leader when asked about the prime minister’s looming indictment.

Speaking to reporters Thursday in Vietnam at the end of his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Mr. Trump said Mr. Netanyahu “has done a great job as prime minister.”

“He’s tough, smart, strong,” Mr. Trump said.

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