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Israel awaits decision on Netanyahu corruption indictment

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on February 17, 2019. - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on February 17 he was relinquishing the role of foreign minister and handing it to a right-wing rival from within his Likud party, Israel Katz. The move comes ahead of April 9 elections and follows court challenges arguing Netanyahu -- who is also health and defence minister -- has taken on too many governmental portfolios. (Photo by Sebastian Scheiner / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read SEBASTIAN SCHEINER/AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s attorney general was expected to deliver a much-anticipated decision Thursday on whether to indict Benjamin Netanyahu on a series of corruption allegations, a momentous move that looks to shake up Israel’s election campaign and potentially spell the end of the prime minister’s illustrious political career.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s aides said he was prepared to announce his decision after more than two years of intense investigations and deliberations. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement.

Police have recommended indicting Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three different cases. Mandelblit is expected to inform Netanyahu’s lawyers he intends to indict pending a final hearing, though the exact charges are not yet clear. The hearing is expected to take place after the April 9 elections.

An indictment would mark the first time in Israeli history that a sitting prime minister has been charged with a crime. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert served time in prison for corruption, but had already resigned by the time he was charged.

Netanyahu doesn’t look to go that quietly. He denies any wrongdoing and calls the various allegations a media-orchestrated witch hunt aimed at removing him from office. He has vowed to carry on and is deadlocked in the polls, 40 days before Israelis go to vote.

In a last-ditch effort to prevent the public release of an indictment, Netanyahu’s Likud party petitioned the Supreme Court to have it delayed until after the elections. But the court rejected the request Thursday afternoon, potentially clearing the way for an announcement from the attorney general.

Despite opposition calls for Netanyahu to step down, Likud and his other nationalist coalition partners have lined up behind him thus far, all but ruling out sitting in a government led by his primary opponent, retired military chief Benny Gantz.

While Israeli prime ministers are not required by law to resign if charged, the prospect of a prime minister standing trial while simultaneously running the country would be unchartered territory.

Mandelblit’s decision could either galvanize Netanyahu’s hard-line supporters who see him as a victim of an overzealous prosecution or turn more moderate backers against him who have tired of his lengthy rule tainted by long-standing accusations of corruption and hedonism.

Either way, the upcoming elections appear to be morphing into a referendum on Netanyahu as he seeks to become the longest serving premier in Israeli history. Netanyahu have been prime minister since 2009 and served a previous term between 1996 and 1999.

President Donald Trump, with whom Netanyahu has forged a close connection, offered the Israeli leader a boost ahead of the expected announcement.

“I just think he’s been a great prime minister and I don’t know about his difficulty but you tell me something people have been hearing about, but I don’t know about that,” he said in response to a question in Hanoi, where he was holding a summit with the leader of North Korea.

“I can say this: that he’s done a great job as prime minister. He’s tough, he’s smart, he’s strong,” Trump said.

Netanyahu rushed back Wednesday from a diplomatic mission to Moscow, and a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, to prepare for his expected rebuttal to the charges on Thursday.

The most serious allegations against Netanyahu involve his relationship with Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Israel’s telecom giant Bezeq. Police recommended an indictment in the case based on evidence collected that confidants of Netanyahu promoted regulatory changes worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Bezeq. In exchange, they believe Netanyahu used his connections with Elovitch to receive positive press coverage on Bezeq’s popular subsidiary news site Walla. Police have said their investigation concluded that Netanyahu and Elovitch engaged in a “bribe-based relationship.”

Police say they believe there is sufficient evidence to charge Netanyahu and his wife Sara with accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust. They also recommended charges be brought against Elovitch, members of his family and members of his Bezeq management team.

Police have previously recommended indicting Netanyahu on corruption charges in two other cases. One involves accepting gifts from billionaire friends, and the second revolves around alleged offers of advantageous legislation for a major newspaper in return for favorable coverage.

Alan Dershowitz, a prominent American lawyer, has come to Netanyahu’s defense, publishing an open letter to Mandelblit in which he warns that an indictment against the prime minister ahead of elections would undermine the democratic process.

“I’m very worried for freedom of the press and freedom of government in Israel if they start indicting people for trying to get good coverage from the media,” he told Israel’s Army Radio. “I don’t know of any other country that has criminalized trying to get good coverage and make that a basis of bribery or any other corruption investigation.”

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