The indictment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 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 any remaining 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."
The prime minister is not legally required to step down but 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, 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 concludes, "the great threat to Netanyahu is now posed from within."