Analysis

Israel Election Results: With Indictment Around the Corner, Netanyahu Is at the Mercy of the Attorney General

Attorney General Mendelblit has described the prime minister as tainted by government corruption, leaving Netanyahu the option of a trial or plea agreement

Netanyahu at an event with his followers on election night.
Ofer Vaknin

If lawyers for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu don’t waive his right to a pre-indictment hearing at the last minute, in two weeks, when they come to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s office, their prominent client’s situation will be very serious. Just after this year’s first Knesset election in April, when the prime minister had the feeling that he had won by a knockout and that the path to a government would provide him with immunity from prosecution, Netanyahu told close associates that the results of that election were proof that the masses, who were aware of the detailed suspicions of criminal wrongdoing against him, had rejected them and fully backed him. (Live election results - click here)

“That’s democracy,” he told the associates, as he laid out his plans for survival.

If in the 2015 election Netanyahu held the view that he had beaten his real rival, Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, it was Attorney General Mendelblit whom he felt he had defeated in the April election this year, and particularly the prosecutors who drafted the devastating indictment against him, dragging Mendelblit, as he sees it, into deciding to file the charges, subject to a hearing.

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The results of this week’s second round of elections reminded Netanyahu something he had long forgotten: The limits of power. The public did not give him a mandate to use political power to evade a trial and to destroy the High Court of Justice.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit
Meged Gozani

Now he is in Mendelblit’s hands and can no longer snap the whip of destruction at the judicial system. If following the April election, Justice Ministry staff spoke privately about possibly saving the justice system in exchange for lenience for Netanyahu, these voices fell silent on election night Tuesday. In the coming weeks, the attorney general intends to speed up the process of deciding whether to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery and breach of trust, coming to a decision on an indictment shortly after the pre-indictment hearing which is to begin on October 2.

It can be assumed that senior prosecution staffers have freed up their schedules for marathon meetings on the case until the gong sounds. Mendelblit said he would hear out Netanyahu’s lawyers with an open mind. But the suspicions against Netanyahu will probably not be dramatically altered by the hearing. Mendelblit sees Netanyahu in an entirely different light now than the forgiving and admiring way he viewed him when the former military prosecutor became attorney general in 2016. In conversations with senior members of Mendelblit’s office, the attorney general has described the prime minister as someone deeply tainted by government corruption who allegedly took advantage of his connections with wealthy people to obtain a variety of benefits in exchange for which he rewarded one of then, Bezeq telecommunications mogul Shaul Elovitch, with “interests worth billions,” as Mendelblit put it.

The fact that the entire senior level of the state prosecutor’s office identified the case of Netanyahu’s ties to Elovitch, Case 4000, as a bribery case shows that it is very unlikely that the matter – involving alleged favorable coverage of the prime minister on Bezeq’s Walla news site in exchange for favorable government regulatory policy towards Bezeq – would be dropped after the hearing.

Netanyahu has successfully marketed himself in recent years as a victim of a conspiracy by the media, the police and members of the justice system to topple him, but a cold, hard look at what transpired over the past three years reveals that the prime minister received a series of significant breaks from the head of the prosecutor’s office.

When two other cases landed on Mendelblit’s desk – Case 1000, involving lavish gifts to the Netanyahu family, and Case 2000, in which Netanyahu allegedly bargained with Mozes for favorable coverage in exchange for legislation damaging his paper’s main rival – everyone who came into contact with Mendelblit could easily see that he wished these cases had never surfaced.

Former Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovich.
Moti Milrod

Mendelblit’s cool response to the damaging recordings of the bribery deal that Netanyahu and Mozes allegedly tried to conclude, as well as to the lavish gifts that streamed into the Prime Minister’s Residence from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan dictated the slow progress of the investigation, which enabled Netanyahu to complete almost an entire term in office in the interim.

The hesitant tone is also what led senior Justice Ministry officials to cast aspersions on Mendelblit’s motives and sharply criticize him in private. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, against whom criminal investigations took a mere months, could only have dreamed of such kid-glove treatment.

Crossing the Rubicon

Mendelblit crossed the Rubicon in early 2018, when he first encountered the detailed testimony of Walla News CEO Ilan Yeshua, the exchange of text messages with Shaul Elovitch and his wife, Iris, and incriminating recordings and testimony of senior Communications Ministry officials, who showed him how far Netanyahu was purportedly willing to act against the public interest to benefit a billionaire just to win total control of a popular news website.

Mendelblit saw how Netanyahu had shrugged off his neo-liberal ideology, perpetuating Bezeq’s monopoly and along the way crushing freedom of the press. The attorney general once told colleagues at the Justice Ministry how shocked he was when he read the testimony of Walla journalists who told investigators how they had censored themselves and steered clear of any information that could irk or tarnish the Netanyahus. Mendelblit realized that the prime minister’s obsession to control increasing numbers of media outlets for his personal benefit was an attempted attack on constitutional principles.

During that period, in which Case 4000 was still being investigated in secret, it was also clear to Mendelblit that the case would ultimately result in a major indictment against Netanyahu. But even after things became clearer and statements from Mendelblit’s direction about Netanyahu’s conduct grew fiercer, the attorney general continued to accord deference to his serial suspect.

That was apparent recently in Mendelblit’s strange decision to approve millions of shekels in “loans” from American businessman Spencer Partrich, and even before that, in his decision not to probe Netanyahu’s receiving shares of stock worth millions from his cousin Nathan Milikowsky, and the alleged false financial declarations that Netanyahu provided to the state comptroller.

If Mendelblit decides, as expected, to indict Netanyahu, attacks by the prime minister and those close to him on the attorney general will apparently be harsh, albeit unjustified. There is probably no one (other than the new state comptroller, Matanyahu Englman) who would have shown the restraint that Mendelblit has, or who would have extended the courtesies to the prime minister that Mendelblit has.

The prime minister’s options

It appears that Netanyahu now has two options: fighting for his acquittal in court or adopting the approach of his late, wise lawyer Jacob Weinroth, who suggested that he pursue a plea agreement and leaving public life forever. It is very unlikely that Netanyahu will opt to follow Weinroth’s advice. And the judicial system is unlikely to lend him a hand.

The option of a plea bargain will likely surface if senior Likud officials continue to entrench themselves behind Netanyahu. The political system would then rush head-on to a dead end and all the players, including Mendelblit, would realize that a plea agreement is the only option to be rid of Netanyahu and to establish a unity government.

That would be undesirable. A public trial that reveals the connections between big money and government in the cases against Netanyahu is in the public interest and would make it clear what happened to the country under Netanyahu since his sweeping and surprising election victory in 2015. It is only such a trial that can establish whether a corrupt man has ruled Israel for years and trafficked in the public interest for his own benefit, or whether the legal system has applied different standards to Netanyahu, as the suspect himself has furiously told his interrogators.