What has Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit just announced?
Officially, Mendelblit has informed the Israeli public that he has decided to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for fraud, bribery and breach of trust in three criminal cases, pending a hearing.
This means he agrees with two police reports issued last year, which recommended that the prime minister be indicted in three affairs known as Case 1000, Case 2000 and Case 4000. Mendelblit backed the police call to indict Netanyahu for fraud and breach of trust in cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery and breach of trust on Case 4000.
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Mendelblit has done so after consulting with more than 20 senior legal officials who have done a deep dive into the evidence in the cases, some of which have been under investigation for three years.
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What kind of hearing will Netanyahu get? Will it happen before the Knesset election?
The hearing – which can either be a written exchange or in-person hearings – is a lengthy, months-long process that won’t fit into the tight time frame before the April 9 general election. Such hearings give the legal team of the person accused the chance to be heard before state prosecutors, in order to dispute and refute any of the evidence and analysis in the report that accompanies the state’s decision to indict.
In a number of prominent previous political corruption cases, such as that of Tzachi Hanegbi in 2001 and Avigdor Lieberman in 2012, it has resulted in the closing of cases. The Israel Democracy Institute reported that when it comes to complex cases involving suspicion of breach of trust, “it usually takes several months between the announcement to indict and the hearing. According to 2016 data from the state prosecutor’s office, when an in-person hearing was held, 41 percent of the cases were eventually closed (49 out of 129 cases).”
Why did Mendelblit announce this before the April 9 election and not wait until afterward?
The attorney general has been in an unenviable, “lose-lose” position since Netanyahu opted to call an early election last December.
In a Israel Democracy Institute survey, legal experts are divided as to whether Mendelblit was indeed obligated to announce the results of his examination into the police recommendations to indict Netanyahu.
Some believe it was necessary because postponing the announcement and making his decision public after the election would lead to accusations that the attorney general was overturning the will of the electorate. The public, they say, has a right to know Netanyahu’s legal situation before they cast their ballot, and if they are electing a leader about to be charged with crimes.
Others maintain that with the election so close, announcing this decision less than six weeks before voters go to the polls can be seen as influencing the vote, unfairly damaging Netanyahu’s chances.
Ultimately, Mendelblit chose to reject the repeated requests of Netanyahu’s lawyers to delay publicizing the decision until after the election, noting instead “the principal of equality in the eyes of the law and the public’s right to know about important legal decisions such as these.”
Can Netanyahu stay in office? Can he keep running for prime minister as the leader of Likud following this announcement?
Yes he can. The attorney general’s decision to indict Netanyahu will not be official until after the hearing, and there isn’t even a legal requirement for him to resign as prime minister if he is then indicted. It is fully possible – many say probable – that he will remain in power if he wins the election and is subsequently indicted, despite doubts that he can prepare a legal defense while running the country.
There is also the issue of conflicts of interests, given his power over the Justice Ministry and other arms of law enforcement. The law that allows him to continue as prime minister is likely to be challenged in court.
What are the details in the three cases Mendelblit intends to indict Netanyahu for pending a hearing?
This case is considered the most straightforward of the alleged crimes as it allegedly involves old-fashioned favor-trading. The Israeli police, in their February 2018 recommendation that Netanyahu be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, maintain that the premier received lavish gifts from two wealthy friends – Israeli-born Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer – in exchange for political favors such as promoting the two moguls’ business interests or obtaining visas.
Together, the police said, Milchan and Packer’s gifts to the Netanyahus (including the prime minister’s wife, Sara) are estimated to have amounted to over 1 million shekels ($276,000). This sum is based on testimony from the gift givers and their employees, as well as receipts and other documents.
Netanyahu has not denied that such gifts were given. He freely admits accepting expensive cigars and pink champagne from Milchan as tokens of friendship, along with other gifts like an expensive piece of jewelry requested by Sara Netanyahu as a birthday gift (from Milchan) and free airplane flights and five-star hotel rooms for the Netanyahus’ eldest son, Yair, from Packer.
But the police, in their indictment recommendation, maintained that Milchan was directly rewarded for his generosity. They said the investigation “revealed that the relationship between the prime minister and Mr. Milchan was one of criminal bribery and not an innocent relationship between friends.”
The police report detailed five areas in which Netanyahu allegedly performed favors for Milchan, specifically:
* Using his influence as prime minister to push for passage of the so-called Milchan law, which cut taxes for Israelis returning to the Jewish state after spending time abroad – a tax break allegedly worth over 1 million shekels for Milchan. MK Yair Lapid, Netanyahu's finance minister in his 2013-2014 government, testified to this, police said.
* Assisting Milchan in his efforts to get a new 10-year U.S. visa.
* Arranging a meeting between Milchan and the then-director general of the Communications Ministry to advance the producer’s interests in the Israeli television market.
* Furthering a deal tied to Indian businessman Ratan Tata, who was allegedly Milchan’s business partner, despite the fact that “officials in the Defense Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office opposed the project,” say police.
* Intervening to prevent the collapse of the television network Channel 10, in which Milchan was a minority shareholder.
Mendelblit said Netanyahu should be indicted for fraud and breach of trust, but omitted the bribery recommendation made by the police.
This centers around Netanyahu’s alleged desire to receive better coverage in one of the country’s leading dailies, Yedioth Ahronoth – a desire strong enough for him to allegedly strike a deal with the paper’s publisher, Arnon Mozes.
Netanyahu was caught on tape telling Mozes he would convince Yedioth’s main competitor – the free daily Israel Hayom, owned by Netanyahu patron Sheldon Adelson – to limit its circulation. This would have been a boon to Mozes and Yedioth, weakening their prime source of competition and its ad revenues.
In exchange, the police say, Netanyahu asked Mozes to cover his government less critically and stop attacking him personally.
Netanyahu’s defense has been that the offer to Mozes wasn’t serious; rather, he was “testing” him. But Adelson reportedly told the police when questioned that Netanyahu did attempt to persuade him from plans to expand Israel Hayom – indicating that a possible deal was struck.
Former Netanyahu chief of staff Ari Harow, who was involved in the talks between Mozes and Netanyahu – and who allegedly recorded the conversations on the premier’s behalf – turned state’s evidence as part of the deal in a separate fraud case against him.
In recent weeks, this case has reportedly been a sticking point and the primary cause of the delay in Mendelblit’s announcement as to whether he would follow the police’s recommendations to indict Netanyahu for fraud, bribery and breach of trust. (The latter refers to when an official, such as a politician, is deemed to have violated the public’s trust in them.)
The Israeli media has reported that there are disagreements within the attorney general’s office regarding the strength of this case and that, as a result, Mendelblit has been on the fence and consulted with Israel’s state prosecutor, Shai Nitzan, and Tel Aviv’s financial district attorney, Liat Ben Ari, in his deliberations as to whether to pursue or close the case.
Mendelblit said Netanyahu should be indicted for fraud and breach of trust.
Police recommended indictments in cases 1000 and 2000 last February. But an even more damaging case unfolded in its aftermath: Case 4000. After many months of questioning and investigating, the police also recommended an indictment in this case last December.
Case 4000 alleges that Netanyahu made decisions benefiting media mogul Shaul Elovitch – the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, Israel's largest telecommunications firm – in exchange for positive coverage on Walla News, a website owned by Elovitch.
The Israel Securities Authority backed the police’s recommendations, which said that both Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, as well as Elovitch and his wife Iris, should be charged.
The police recommended that the prime minister again be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, as well as aggravated fraudulent receiving of an item. The recommended charges against Sara Netanyahu were bribery, fraud, breach of trust and obstruction of justice.
Police say the premier, in his role as communications minister from 2014 to 2017 (while he was also prime minister), intervened with regulators to help the Bezeq group with a deal that was worth some 1 billion shekels to it.
The police said they found evidence that “Netanyahu and those close to him blatantly intervened, sometimes on a daily basis, in content published on the Walla news website, and sought to influence the appointment of senior employees (editors and reporters), while using their ties to Shaul and Iris Elovitch.”
The alleged quid pro quo between the Netanyahus and Elovitches was first revealed by Haaretz’s Gidi Weitz in November 2015, in an exposé titled “The Israeli News Site in Netanyahu's Pocket.”
Mendelblit said Netanyahu should be indicted for bribery and breach of trust, but omitted the police recommendations of fraud and aggravated fraudulent receiving of an item.