Israel’s attorney general has recommended indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with bribery and breach of trust in a series of corruption cases.
The move has shook up Israel’s election campaign and could spell the end of the prime minister’s illustrious political career.
Mr Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his decision after more than two years of intense investigations and deliberations.
Police had recommended indicting Mr Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three different cases that ranged from accepting expensive gifts from wealthy allies to allegedly trading influence for more favourable press coverage.
“The attorney general has reached his decision after thoroughly examining the evidence,” his statement said.
The final decision on indictment will only take place after a hearing, where Mr Netanyahu is given the opportunity to defend himself.
That process is expected to take many months and be completed long after the April 9 elections.
But the recommendations immediately cast a cloud over the campaign and Mr Netanyahu’s future.
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.
Mr Netanyahu 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.
Mr Netanyahu scheduled a press conference later on Thursday to respond to the attorney general’s decision.
In a last-ditch effort to prevent the public release of an indictment, Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party petitioned the Supreme Court to have it delayed until after the elections.
But the court rejected the request on Thursday afternoon, potentially clearing the way for an announcement from the attorney general.
Despite opposition calls for Mr Netanyahu to step down, Likud and his other nationalist coalition partners have lined up behind him so 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.
Mr Mandelblit’s decision could either galvanise Mr Netanyahu’s hardline 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.
President Donald Trump, with whom Mr 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,” President Trump said.
Mr Netanyahu rushed back on 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 Mr Netanyahu involve his relationship with Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Israel’s telecom giant Bezeq.
Mr Mandelblit recommended a bribery charge in the case based on evidence collected that confidants of Mr Netanyahu promoted regulatory changes worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Bezeq.
In exchange, they believe Mr Netanyahu used his connections with Mr Elovitch to receive positive press coverage on Bezeq’s popular subsidiary news site Walla.
Police have said their investigation concluded that Mr Netanyahu and Mr Elovitch engaged in a “bribe-based relationship”.
A related charge against Mr Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, was dropped.
Mr Mandelblit’s statement said there was a unanimous opinion among investigators that the relationship between Mr Netanyahu and the Elovitches constituted bribery.
“Everyone agreed there was enough evidence to prove that benefits were given to Netanyahu by Elovitch and his wife Iris Elovitch and were taken by Netanyahu in return for actions he took as part of his job,” it said.
Mr Mandelblit also filed breach of trust 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 favourable coverage.
Mr Mandelblit’s office said the timing of Mr Netanyahu’s hearing would be set in the near future in coordination with the prime minister’s lawyers.