Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is no stranger to scandal.During his decades-long dominance of Israeli politics at the helm of the Likud party, he has been chided for spending too much public money on ice cream and a personal hairdresser, escaped prosecution and fought off calls for him to step down.But Israel watchers said Thursday's indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust — which comes while Netanyahu is serving as caretaker prime minister after he failed to cobble together a government last month — may just have turned the hourglass and spelled the end of his lengthy rule."I think it's more likely than at any time in the last 10 years that Netanyahu is coming to an end of his premiership and leadership," said Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations at Regent's University in London.
"I think we're edging closer and closer towards a real challenge to him on two levels one in the Likud party and the other from parties that potentially could have sat with him in the 55 block," he said, referring to parties that have said they would back a Netanyahu-led government.But Mekelberg cautioned that in politics nothing was certain."It takes some courageous people to walk into his office and say enough is enough," he said.Netanyahu, 70, vehemently denies any wrongdoing and vowed Thursday to remain in power insisting, without evidence, that the indictment was a personal vendetta."This is a contaminated process, we need to investigate the investigators, they didn't want the truth, they were after me personally," he said.Under Netanyahu's leadership Israel has veered to the right, with hopes of a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dimming. He has sought to present himself as Mr. Security and traded on his strong relationship with President Donald Trump.Israel's longest-serving prime minister faces a bitter fight if he wants to keep his job. His chief political rival, Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party, called for Netanyahu to "immediately resign," citing a Supreme Court ruling that says indicted ministers cannot continue to hold office.The two were virtually tied after September's elections and each failed to assemble a governing majority.It does not look good for Netanyahu, a political Houdini who has defied analysts and emerged stronger from previous setbacks. He is the first prime minister in Israeli history to be indicted while in office and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of briberyand a maximum three-year term for fraud and breach of trust, according to legal experts.
However, Netanyahu clung onto power before, earning himself the title of "magician" in some political circles.He first became prime minister in 1996 and served for three years. After losing the next election, he left politics, only to return in 2002 as foreign minister and then as prime minister in 2009. He then won subsequent elections in 2013 and 2015.The veteran lawmaker has also managed to escape prosecution in several cases, including one in which he was accused of appointing a crony as attorney general while in office in the 1990s in exchange for political support. In another case, dropped by the attorney general, he was suspected of double billing travel expenses and using state funds to cover travel for his family in the 2000s.Yet latest development may prove one challenge too many."I think it's possible he could be found innocent but, I don't see how he survives politically after this," said Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute — a London-based think tank.Suzie Navot, a professor of constitutional and parliamentary law at Haim Striks School of Law, said it remained an open question whether Netanyahu could continue to hold office while indicted under Israeli law."If the judges decide that he is guilty of a crime that has moral turpitude then the Knesset may remove him from office," she said. If they don't, then when the decision is final after the appeal, his mandate is terminated.The issue, she said, was that the law does not define what kind of crimes are permitted and which are not for a prime minister to stay in office.A second legal question that remains to be answered, she added, was whether Israel's President Reuven Rivlin is able to hand Netanyahu the mandate to form Israel's next government now he has been indicted."These are all questions that have never been brought in Israel, never, we're in a dramatic point both politically and legally speaking," she said.Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, resigned a decade ago ahead of a corruption indictment that later sent him to prison for 16 months.