Israel’s attorney general has announced plans to indict prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of breach of trust and bribery.
The move followed months of mounting pressure and comes just six weeks before closely contested elections considered a referendum on Mr Netanyahu’s legacy.
The 69-year-old has entered uncharted territories as the first sitting Israeli Prime Minister put on notice for prosecution.
Charges can only be filed after a hearing, likely to be held after the April 9 elections, in which Mr Netanyahu can contest the allegations.
The claims concern three separate cases in which Mr Netanyahu is accused of accepting expensive gifts and conspiring for positive media coverages in exchange for political favors.
Mr Netanyahu has roundly denied any wrongdoing and vowed to remain in office and fight the charges.
By law, he does not need to step down when indicted and his Likud party has pledged to stand by him. Mr Netanyahu has in turn repeatedly dismissed the allegations as a conspiracy by the left and media to bring down his right-wing government.
In a statement after the indictment’s release, Likud called it “a witch hunt” and “political persecution.”
“Unilateral publication of the attorney general’s announcement just a month before the elections, without giving the prime minister an opportunity to refute these false accusations, is a blatant and unprecedented intervention in the elections,” the statement said.
On Thursday morning, Likud failed in a bid to delay the indictment in an appeal to the Supreme Court.
Mr Netanyahu initially called for early elections in December in a bid to get ahead of the pending indictments.
Any actual trial is still months or years away. In the meantime, the question remains what impact the indictments will have on “King Bibi,” as the former special forces soldier has become known.
In recent weeks, a coalition of centrist parties led by former Army Chief Benny Gantz has emerged as a significant electoral threat.
But Mr Netanyahu is also feeling heat from the right, as he fears losing votes to his more right-wing opponents.
In a highly controversial move aimed at securing some of these votes, last week Mr Netanyahu pushed through an unprecedented alliance with an extreme fringe and religious-nationalist party, Jewish Power. The group’s leaders are disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who both Israel and the United States had sanctioned for terrorism, incitement to violence, and racism.
Some analysts are portraying the proposed indictment as the beginning of the end for Me Netanyahu.
A recent poll by the Israeli website The Times of Israel predicted that Mr Netanyahu’s Likud would lose four parliamentary seats if the prime minister was indicted, while Mr Gantz’s coalition, known as the Blue and White Party, could gain enough seats to take the premiership.
Others, however, are not dismissing him yet.
Mr Netanyahu can rely on a large and loyal base. Another recent poll found that a majority of Likud and ultra-orthodox voters did not trust the police, claims of corruption, or the media — which seems to signal popular support for Mr Netanyahu’s characterization of these cases as a conspiracy against him.
Mr Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister for the second time in 2009. If he wins the April election he’ll become the longest serving Israeli prime minister, a title currently held by founding father Ben Gurion.