Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has angrily accused prosecutors of an 'attempted coup' after being indicted in a series of corruption cases, throwing Israel's political system into disarray.
Netanyahu, who's had a 10 year grip on power, is refusing to resign.
The first-ever charges against a sitting Israeli prime minister capped a three-year investigation, with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit indicting Netanyahu for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes.
"A day in which the attorney general decides to serve an indictment against a seated prime minister for serious crimes of corrupt governance is a heavy and sad day, for the Israeli public and for me personally," Mandelblit, who was appointed by Netanyahu, told reporters.
The indictment does not require the 70-year-old Netanyahu to resign, but it significantly weakens him at a time when Israel's political parties appear to be limping toward a third election in under a year.
An ashen-faced Netanyahu appeared on national TV late Thursday, claiming he was the victim of a grand conspiracy by police and prosecutors who had intimidated key witnesses into testifying against him.
He defiantly claimed the indictment stemmed from "false accusations" and a systematically "tainted investigation," saying the country was witnessing an "attempted coup" against him.
"Police and investigators are not above the law," he said. "The time has come to investigate the investigators."
As the investigation gained steam in recent months, Netanyahu has repeatedly lashed out at what he sees as a hostile media, police and justice system.
Observers have compared his tactics to those of his friend, US President Donald Trump, who has used similar language to rally his base during an accelerating impeachment hearing.
Several dozen supporters and opponents of Netanyahu staged rival demonstrations outside the prime minister's official residence Thursday night.
Mandelblit rejected accusations that his decision was politically motivated and said he had acted solely out of professional considerations. He criticised the often-heated pressure campaigns by Netanyahu's supporters and foes to sway his decision, which came after months of deliberations. Both sides had staged demonstrations outside or near his home.
"This is not a matter of politics," he said. "This is an obligation placed on us, the people of law enforcement, and upon me personally as the one at its head."
According to the indictment, Netanyahu accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars of champagne and cigars from billionaire friends, offered to trade favours with a newspaper publisher and used his influence to help a wealthy telecom magnate in exchange for favourable coverage on a popular news site.
Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was forced to resign a decade ago ahead of a corruption indictment that later sent him to prison for 16 months.
The decision comes at a tumultuous time for the country. After an inconclusive election in September, both Netanyahu and former military chief Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, have failed to form a majority coalition in parliament. It's the first time in the nation's history that that has happened.
The country now has a 21-day period in which any member of parliament can try to rally a 61-member majority to become prime minister.
If that fails, new elections would be triggered.
Australian Associated Press