Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's indictment is expected to sharpen the battle lines in Israel's already deadlocked political system and could test the loyalty of his right-wing allies, Israeli commentators said Friday.
The serious corruption charges announced Thursday appear to have dashed already slim hopes for a unity government following September's elections, paving the way for an unprecedented repeat vote in March, which will be the third in less than a year.
In an angry speech late Thursday, Netanyahu lashed out at investigators and vowed to fight on in the face of an “attempted coup.”
His main opponent, the centrist Blue and White party, called on him to “immediately resign” from all his Cabinet posts, citing a Supreme Court ruling that says indicted ministers cannot continue to hold office. Netanyahu also serves as minister of health, labor and Diaspora affairs, as well as acting minister of agriculture.
He is not legally required to step down as prime minister, but Netanyahu faces heavy pressure to do so, and it is unclear whether an indicted politician could be given the mandate to form a new government. Netanyahu has already failed to form a majority coalition of 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset after two hard-fought elections this year.
“This will not be an election, it will be a civil war without arms,'' columnist Amit Segal wrote in Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper. ``There is a broad constituency that believes what Netanyahu said yesterday, but it is far from being enough for anything close to victory.”
Writing in the same newspaper, Sima Kadmon compared Netanyahu to the Roman emperor Nero, saying “he will stand and watch as the country burns.”
Netanyahu was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust stemming from three long-running corruption cases. He has denied any wrongdoing and accused the media, courts and law enforcement of waging a “witch hunt” against him.
The corruption charges will weigh heavily on Netanyahu's Likud party in future elections, but it's unclear if any senior member has the support or willingness to replace him.
Hours before the indictment was announced, Gideon Saar, a senior Likud member, said a party primary should be held ahead of any future elections and that he would compete. But there are several other leading members of the party, and it's unclear if any one of them can gain enough support to topple its longtime leader.
Some Likud members expressed support for Netanyahu after the indictment was announced, but most have remained mum.
“If the attorney general should indeed announce that Netanyahu can no longer form a government, will (Likud members) stand up openly and work to form an alternative government? For that to happen, they will have to sit together in one room and trust each other, which is something that has not happened for the past decade,” Segal wrote.
Nevertheless, he concluded, “the great threat to Netanyahu is now posed from within.”
Amid all the political machinations, Netanyahu will have to prepare to go on trial. He can battle the charges, or he might seek a plea bargain in which he agrees to resign in return for avoiding jail time or hefty fines. Either process could drag on for months.
Netanyahu is Israel's first sitting prime minister to be charged with a crime. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was forced to resign a decade ago ahead of a corruption indictment that later sent him to prison for 16 months.
“We've got a number of political and legal processes which are all going to be happening now simultaneously,” Anshel Pfeffer, a Haaretz columnist and the author of a biography of Netanyahu, told The Associated Press.
“It's impossible to predict which one will bring about the end of Netanyahu's career,” he said. “All these things are going ahead now, but slowly.”