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Graft accusation piles pressure on Israel's Netanyahu as election looms

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Protesters waved black flags outside Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence on Friday, sensing vulnerability in the Israeli prime minister weeks before an election where he will face looming corruption charges as well as a surging new rival.

Netanyahu’s aim of a fifth term on April 9 that would make him Israel’s longest-serving premier were dealt a blow by the announcement on Thursday of his planned indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

A poll by the public broadcaster Kan gave his right-wing Likud party 29 of parliament’s 120 seats, behind the 37 predicted for Blue and White, a centrist alliance led by charismatic ex-general Benny Gantz.

The survey further indicated that center-left parties taken together would win 61 seats, potentially enough to form a government.

Yuval Steinitz, a Likud cabinet minister, told Tel Aviv 102 FM radio he was “confident that Netanyahu will continue being able to contend with pressure of whatever kind”. Former party leader Ariel Sharon won a 2003 election and went on to form a coalition government despite a graft scandal, Steinitz noted.

But one of the opposition Labour party flag-wavers, Alon Visser, said: “It is a black day for the citizens of Israel. We are all ashamed of our prime minister and we are calling him with one big voice: Please resign from your office.”

Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully accepting $264,000-worth of gifts from tycoons and dispensing favors in an attempt to secure positive coverage in a newspaper and on a website.

He denies any wrongdoing, but could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery. However, charges cannot be filed until Netanyahu has been given a chance to address a review hearing – which is unlikely to happen before the election.

In the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, social worker Coral Kala, 24, said she had not been surprised by the indictment announcement: “I think everyone was expecting this to happen.”

But others echoed the position of Netanyahu, widely known as Bibi, that the political and media elites are against him.

“I think that Bibi did a wonderful job,” said Tzipi Amit, 44, from Petah Tikva.

“All the news and reporters want to hurt him and they are not fair to him … All of us are people, all of us make mistakes.”

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