It is the first time a serving Israeli prime minister has been put on official notice of prosecution and deepens uncertainty over how Netanyahu, a veteran right-wing leader, will fare against a coalition of 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 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.
“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 $US264,000 ($A371,461)-worth of gifts, which prosecutors say included cigars and champagne, from tycoons and dispensing favours 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 three-year term for fraud and breach of trust.
Israel’s shekel weakened on the news.
Opinion polls show a tight race for Netanyahu’s Likud party, with sharp gains for a centre-left alliance led by Benny Gantz, a former armed forces chief who has pledged clean government.
At the hearing with Mandelblit, 69-year-old Netanyahu can cite public interest in arguing against an indictment.
In his statement 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 past decade.
“This is not to be taken for granted,” he said.
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