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Israel's Netanyahu Faces Charges In 3 Corruption Cases

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Israel's longest serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is now its first to be indicted while in office. He says the charges are a political plot, and he plans to stay in office. Netanyahu is accused of bribery, fraud, also breach of trust. This is all in an indictment announced by the country's attorney general yesterday. Netanyahu is already fighting for survival after two inconclusive elections in recent months and possibly another vote coming in the spring. Let's turn to NPR's Daniel Estrin, who's in Tel Aviv. Daniel, good morning.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning to you.

GREENE: So tell us more about what the prime minister is accused of here.

ESTRIN: Well, the most serious charge is bribery. He's accused of offering regulatory favors that benefited a telecoms executive and in exchange getting positive coverage in that executive's news website. And then he's also accused of discussing a similar deal to help a newspaper publisher - another one - in exchange for positive press. And he's also charged with doing favors for a Hollywood producer and getting cigars and champagne in return. The attorney general in Israel says he's pressing charges because he's confident that Netanyahu will likely be convicted.

GREENE: And this is unprecedented. This kind of indictment has never happened before in Israel.

ESTRIN: Yes. It's the first time in Israeli history that a prime minister has been indicted while in office. There was another situation kind of like this. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was indicted. But in that case, Olmert resigned before the charges were final. And in the end, he was convicted and jailed.

GREENE: OK. So this is an indictment. That certainly doesn't mean automatically that Netanyahu leaves office. What is his strategy that he's building to hang on?

ESTRIN: Well, his tactic now is to delegitimize the entire corruption investigation into him. He gave a televised address last night, and he said the investigation was tainted. He used that word half a dozen times at least. He said it was a politically motivated attempt at a coup against the right-wing prime minister. His main rival, the centrist Benny Gantz, said, no, this is no coup attempt. This is Netanyahu trying to barricade himself into power. And so he's trying to shore up his base by firing them up and saying this is an unfair investigation into me.

GREENE: So, I mean, Netanyahu knows how to win elections. He's won his share. But the last two have been really close for him to form a parliamentary coalition. You say he's trying to fire up his base. What are you hearing so far? I mean, are his supporters still with him? Are they going to stay with him?

ESTRIN: His core base, I think, still is with him. You go on his Facebook and you see that he's responding to many Israelis who are writing notes of support. But it does look like Israel may be headed to a third election after two inconclusive elections this year. And so there are questions, legal questions now, about whether Netanyahu will be able to run for reelection. And then there are the politics involved. Will his own party dump him and decide that another candidate will do better than him in a new election? I spoke to a Likud Party official in Netanyahu's party who says I think this investigation was an injustice. On the other hand, how can Netanyahu continue to govern the country while he's got this corruption trial ahead of him?

GREENE: All right. NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting from Tel Aviv. Daniel, thanks so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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