JERUSALEM, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Israel's attorney-general announced on Thursday he intends to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges, a decision coming just six weeks before a closely contested national election.
It was the first time a serving Israeli prime minister has been put on official notice of planned prosecution, and deepened uncertainty over how Netanyahu, a veteran right-wing leader, will fare against a coalition of upstart centrist rivals.
An actual filing of the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust would depend on the outcome of a required hearing, the Justice Ministry said. That could take months to complete.
At that hearing - which could take place after the April 9 election - Netanyahu can try to persuade the attorney-general, Avichai Mandelblit, not to indict him.
His voice brimming with indignation as he addressed the nation during prime-time TV news, Netanyahu dismissed the three criminal cases as a political "witch-hunt" designed to oust him.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
President Donald Trump welcomes visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in Washington, Monday, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, greet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump hold up the signed proclamation recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights as Netanyahu leaves the White House in Washington, Monday, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
President Donald Trump and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk along the Colonnade of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during their visit at Netanyahu's official residence in Jerusalem, Thursday March 21, 2019. (Jim Young/Pool Image via AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office Sunday, March 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, Pool)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on January 22, 2017. / AFP / POOL / RONEN ZVULUN (Photo credit should read RONEN ZVULUN/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 21: (L to R) Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to U.S. President Barack Obama during a bilateral meeting at the Lotte New York Palace Hotel, September 21, 2016 in New York City. Last week, Israel and the United States agreed to a $38 billion, 10-year aid package for Israel. Obama is expected to discuss the need for a 'two-state solution' for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Pool Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 22: Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 22, 2016 in New York City. According to the UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon, the most pressing matter to be discussed at the General Assembly is the world's refugee crisis. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - NOVEMBER 18: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference on November 18, 2014 in Jerusalem, Israel. Netanyahu said incitement by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Islamic Jihad led to a terrorist attack in a Jerusalem synagogue, which killed four worshippers and wounded several others. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - JUNE 02: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with Military Secretary Eyal Zamir during the weekly cabinet meeting in his office on June 2, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Sebastian Scheiner - Pool/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the press in the southern Israeli port of Eilat, on March 10, 2014, as Israel displayed advanced rockets type M-302 capable of reaching distances of up to 200 km that were unloaded from the Panamanian-flagged Klos-C vessel on March 9, 2014 in the southern Israeli port of Eilat. The vessel, which was allegedly transporting arms from Iran to Gaza, was escorted into the port of Eilat after Israeli naval commandos seized it on March 5, 2014. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - JANUARY 22: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touches the Western Wall, Judaism holiest site, on January 22, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. The latest opinion polls suggest that current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will return to office, albeit with a reduced majority. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - JANUARY 22: (ISRAEL OUT) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot at a polling station on election day on January 22, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. Israel's general election voting has begun today as polls show Netanyahu is expected to return to office with a narrow majority. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
SDE BOKER, ISRAEL - NOVEMBER 20: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres attend the annual memorial ceremony for David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, in Sde Boker on November 20, 2012 in southern Israel. Hamas militants and Israel are continuing talks aimed at a ceasefire as the death toll in Gaza reaches over 100 with three Israelis also having been killed by rockets fired by Palestinian militants. (Photo by Dan Balilty - Pool /Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 23: Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, delivers an address to the 66th General Assembly Session at the United Nations on September 23, 2011 in New York City. The annual event, which is being dominated this year by the Palestinian's bid for full membership, gathers more than 100 heads of state and government for high level meetings on nuclear safety, regional conflicts, health and nutrition and environment issues. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - APRIL 10: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his offices on April 10, 2011 in Jerusalem, Israel. Both Israel and Hamas have expressed a willingness to call a truce to cross-border violence that in the past few days has claimed at least 19 Palestinian lives in retaliatory Israeli air strikes. (Photo by Jim Hollander - Pool/Getty Images)
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"I intend to serve you and the country as prime minister for many more years. But it's up to you," he said, referring to his hopes of winning a fourth consecutive term in April.
"It's not up to the civil servants. It's not up to the television studios. It's not up to the pundits and journalists."
Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully accepting $264,000-worth of gifts, which prosecutors said included cigars and champagne, from tycoons and dispensing favors in alleged bids for improved coverage by an Israeli newspaper and a website.
He could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum 3-year term for fraud and breach of trust.
Israel's shekel weakened against the dollar on the news. It was trading at 3.63 per dollar at 1620 GMT, from 3.6240 before the announcement and down 0.4 percent versus the U.S. currency from Wednesday.
Opinion polls show a tight race for Netanyahu's Likud party, with sharp gains for a center-left alliance led by Benny Gantz, a former armed forces chief who has pledged clean government.
'A GREAT PRIME MINISTER'
At the hearing with Mandelblit, the 69-year-old Netanyahu can cite the public interest in arguing against an indictment.
In his statement on Thursday, the prime minister touted what he has achieved for the country: noting the strong economy and ties with world powers that he has cultivated over the last decade.
"This is not to be taken for granted," he said.
Netanyahu would be under no legal requirement to resign, even if indicted. But if he were re-elected it would likely be to lead a coalition, as he does now, and if he were indicted, public pressure could buckle the necesssary alliances.
Already, Gantz said in a statement on Thursday evening he would not join Netanyahu in any future coalition government, given the possible corruption indictment.
U.S. President Donald Trump, asked at a news conference earlier on Thursday about Netanyahu's legal troubles, voiced support for the Israeli leader. Trump and Netanyahu have been in lockstep over policy towards Iran and the Palestinians.
"Well, I just think he has been a great prime minister," said Trump.
Anshel Pfeffer, author of a recent Netanyahu biography, said on Twitter that Israel was entering "uncharted waters" in which "no one has any idea how being a prime minister under notice of indictment will effect Netanyahu and his government."
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Maayan Lubell Editing by Stephen Farrell and Frances Kerry)