Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been charged with bribery and fraud, according to local media, marking a startling descent for one of the world’s most recognizable leaders.
Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. He has held the position over two separate stints, spanning a total of 15 years. He gained an outsized global voice for the leader of a country of just 9 million people, boasting a special forces swagger, English honed during a childhood in Philadelphia, and two degrees from MIT.
Now he also has the distinction of being the first sitting Israeli prime minister to be indicted on criminal charges.
Attorney general Avichai Mendelblit said Netanyahu would be charged in three cases, some of which have been hanging over him for almost three years. All three cases involve exchanges of political favors for positive media coverage or other gifts. The most serious charge alleges that Netanyahu made a deal for favorable press coverage with media mogul Shaul Elovich that ultimately netted Elovich some $500 million. Netanyahu has called the whole process a “witch hunt.”
The once resilient prime minister is simultaneously locked in a last-gasp struggle to hold onto office. Despite two elections this year and three attempts to form a coalition government, both the Israeli leader and his centrist opponent, Benny Gantz, have so far failed to cobble together a majority.
Winning another election was key to the prime minister’s plan to avoid criminal charges. Netanyahu had hoped to win a mandate that would have allowed a friendly Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to pass laws protecting Netanyahu from indictment. He leaned heavily on his rightwing base, promising to annex huge swaths of the West Bank. The prime minister, though, failed to get his mandate.
Israel’s government now finds itself in crisis. The country is likely to face a third election in the space of less than a year. It’s unclear if Netanyahu will be able to stand—and his chief rival in his Likud party has said he will challenge the prime minister in a primary to stop him.