“What’s a million dollars in a suitcase compared to what Netanyahu was promised, according to what the police are telling us? A million dollars is small change.” The speaker is former State Prosecutor Moshe Lador, making his first public statements, in an extensive interview with Haaretz, about the criminal case (“Case 2000”) starring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes. The two bitter rivals are suspected of having concocted a quid-pro-quo deal in late 2014 ahead of the last national election. Netanyahu allegedly pledged to use his political power to pass a law that would severely weaken Yedioth’s main competitor, Israel Hayom, and restore Yedioth to its position of primacy, while Mozes allegedly promised Netanyahu that he would muster the power of his media empire to ensure, as he put it, that “Netanyahu will remain prime minister for as long as he so desires.”
For many months, Lador declined to comment publicly on any of the various corruption cases connected with Netanyahu. “I cannot speak about cases with which I am not familiar” was the standard explanation he would offer. But the detailed summary reports of the investigations published by the police, combined with his feeling that “the country is almost coming apart” and is “awash in ridiculous spin based on fake news,” have prompted the man who exactly 10 years ago led the investigations into former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (and who was later harshly assailed for some of his moves) to reveal his thoughts on the cases in which Netanyahu now finds himself ensnared.
“I know that I will be attacked from both sides – both by those who may not like what I have to say, and maybe also by people from the law enforcement system to which I belonged. They’ll all say that I’m not familiar with all the material from the investigations. And that’s correct to some degree,” he says, already bracing for the inevitable blowback. “But I am familiar with the findings of the police investigators who worked with and under the close oversight of the attorney general’s office and the State Prosecutor’s Office, as well as with the whole public and media discussion that has been ongoing for more than a year. I believe that it’s important that some of the messages currently being heard as part of this discussion – some of them twisted – be addressed already, rather than wait years to do so, because they are causing confusion and tremendous damage.”
Case 2000 (the Yedioth Ahronoth quid-pro-quo affair) seems to have elicited mostly yawns from Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, as well as from many senior politicians and journalists. A lot of people don’t really see the criminality of tilting coverage in a politician’s favor. Are you also a skeptic here?
“Not at all. This is the reason I use the example of the million dollars in a suitcase. It helps to clarify the issue and to shake off the frequent spin that says this was just routine talk between a politician and a newspaper publisher. Suppose that in exchange for Netanyahu’s efforts to pass the ‘Israel Hayom law,’ he and Mozes had reached an agreement that the Yedioth publisher would hand him a suitcase filled with a million dollars in cash – then it would obviously be easier to understand that bribery was taking place here. But here it wasn’t explicitly about money, but a promise by a major media power to provide continuously favorable coverage to the country’s number-one politician.
“The summary report by the police says the discussions between them were serious, i.e., there were negotiations that had started to amount to something. If this is really what occurred, the alleged deal that was being made here involved much more serious and significant bribery – in its essential characteristics – than other bribery cases.”
“Really,” says Lador, “what’s a measly million dollars compared to favorable coverage of immeasurable importance? Coverage that would also totally flip the generally negative coverage that was typical of Yedioth in the past! In effect, Netanyahu was offered something that, in many ways, could be the thing that would ensure or greatly boost his chances of retaining his position and his ability to be reelected. Case 4000 [the Bezeq telecom-giant case] and Case 2000 could end up affecting one another. If a connection is indeed found between readiness on the part of Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch and the media outlets at his disposal to provide favorable coverage of Netanyahu and Netanyahu using his position as communications minister to advance Bezeq’s interests, the Yedioth case will be strengthened. Each one could strengthen the other.”
Netanyahu and Mozes are adopting the same line of defense: We were just kidding with each other. We never had any intention of making any sort of deal. Would this line of defense save them from being brought to trial?
“I don’t think this argument will do much to help them. It’s not like they’re old friends who just like to sit around enjoying each other’s company. They’re practically sworn enemies. Both of them are very busy people, no one in the country is busier than the prime minister, and here he is putting in the time, in more than one meeting, to explore and clarify and try to advance what looks like a deal. This is a very difficult line of defense for both of them.”
If tilting coverage in favor of a politician is an element in a criminal case, then why shouldn’t Israel Hayom, in which hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested solely to help Netanyahu, be looked upon as having a quid-pro-quo expectation and bribery built into it?
“There’s a very significant difference. With the establishment of Israel Hayom, you have a dedicated media outlet whose owner, Sheldon Adelson, invested a fortune in distributing a paper that’s highly sympathetic to Netanyahu, perhaps because he believes in the man and his worldview. This is Adelson’s most important motivation in funding this mouthpiece. There may be distasteful aspects to it, and perhaps these could even be construed as violating election law. But on the face of it, there is no bribery deal here, no quid pro quo. In the Yedioth case, however, you have a situation in which a newspaper that represented a very critical stance toward Bibi and was previously very supportive of Olmert is proposing to change its agenda. And if the prime minister agreed – in return for the 180-degree turn promised by Mozes – to make use of his power, authority and influence to weaken Israel Hayom via legislation, then the gravity of such actions is much greater than the suspicions in Case 1000, involving the lavish gifts to the prime minister.”
Case 1000, surrounding the gifts of cigars, champagne and jewelry to the Netanyahus from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, is being marketed by the prime minister’s supporters as a petty matter, certainly nothing criminal – just accepting gifts from a close friend. Is this how you see it?
“First of all, these were not mere gifts by any means. According to the investigative summary, there was a systematic practice that went on for years of a stream of luxury items in very large numbers and not in connection with any special occasion, and this was handled by secretaries and drivers and supplied in response to specific requests from the Netanyahus.”
Okay, but what’s wrong with that? It could be seen to be just what Netanyahu claims it is – a kind gesture from a close friend. Milchan is a very wealthy man who expresses his affection for the prime minister through gifts. Where does bribery come into it?
“It’s quite possible that Attorney General Mendelblit will examine this long-standing relationship and find that it’s not really a close friendship, a ‘friendship-plus’ that led to ‘gifts,’ but actually a ‘friendship-minus’ that people seeking to get close to Netanyahu boosted and supplemented by means of a steady stream of luxury goods over the years . A person of integrity and a leader of integrity would not agree to be have his friendship bought.”
The police found that Netanyahu worked on behalf of Milchan’s interests on at least several occasions: with the ‘Milchan law,’ through aid in obtaining a visa, in his attempt to purchase Channel 2. If this is all true, does this add up to a bribery case?
“If Mendelblit puts himself in the prime minister’s shoes during the years of receiving benefits and asks – What is behind Milchan’s extraordinary willingness to indulge the family? And if Mendelblit’s answer is that one can’t presume that it was solely out of personal affection, but that there were other – cost-benefit – calculations that led Milchan to accede to the requests and to provide the benefits, and that one reason he may have done so was to foster a sense of gratitude toward him, then Mendelblit will have to examine the following question: Was Netanyahu aware of this or did he suspect that Milchan expected from him that he’d use his position and authority to intervene on his behalf in business or personal matters in connection with Milchan’s interests in Israel and elsewhere and assist him? And also, did the prime minister understand that there was a connection, even a partial one, between the element of gratitude that Milchan cultivated in him and Milchan’s expectation that the prime minister would acquiesce to these wishes? If that’s the case, the attorney general will find that it appears there is a foundation for a bribery charge. The police found evidence to support this.”
But how does one prove that Netanyahu worked on Milchan’s behalf because he felt indebted to him? How is it possible to crack that black box?
“If the court finds that receiving such a flow of luxury goods – which are of a very significant monetary value – creates for Bibi, as it naturally would for anyone, a sense of indebtedness, and if, in practice, Netanyahu used his authority to aid Milchan, the source of this continuous flow of goodies, that could serve as evidence that bribery was committed.”
Is there any difference in gravity between the benefits that Olmert received – the cash-stuffed envelopes – and the perishable products, the cigars and champagne, that the Netanyahus received?
“Not according to the law, not according to judicial precedents, not according to logic and not in terms of substance.”
Mendelblit, hurry up!
Lador now says that Netanyahu must step aside. Resign, in effect. “It’s an absurd situation in which Netanyahu is operating on a dual front,” he suggests, “running the country and defending himself from serious corruption allegations. You can really see how Netanyahu’s attempt to defend himself has already harmed the public interest and government institutions – from the bill banning the publication of police recommendations [based on the findings of investigations], a very damaging initiative designed to solve some of the prime minister’s problems, to the ‘French law’ [that would grant serving prime ministers immunity from corruption investigations], to the effort he’s investing in undermining public trust in government bodies – right now against senior police investigators and the police commissioner – to the no-holds-barred assault on figures from his close circle who turned state’s witness.”
What you’re suggesting not only contradicts the law, it starkly undermines the right to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. It’s still possible that the police recommendations are based on flimsy evidence.
“As soon as it’s clear that in any event – whether or not the investigators’ firm conclusions yield an indictment – this isn’t some baseless attack based on political rivalry, it makes no sense to assume that dozens of detectives, prosecutors and legal consultants, whose political views are surely scattered all over the spectrum, including support for Likud, would cooperate in cultivating false charges.
“And as for the reasonability and the weight of the police findings at this stage – they don’t look the least bit flimsy or speculative or meaningless. Don’t forget that the close supervision of the attorney general and the state prosecutor removes any possibility – even a slight one – that these documents are divorced from reality.
“So yes, everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but this has nothing to do with the need to weigh the personal interest against the public interest. In the circumstances that have arisen here, the answer is clear: No country or company should be run by a leadership that is entirely consumed by endless scandals that are under investigation. Think about it for a moment – Dudi Amsalem and David Bitan [current and former Likud Knesset whip, respectively], who together proposed the French-law bill, which would give a sitting prime minister immunity from criminal prosecution, essentially share my position. Even Netanyahu himself and I think also [Public Security Minister] Gilad Erdan and others, too, preached the same thing when Olmert was at the very same point in the criminal process and facing much more modest suspicions and a much less comprehensive accumulation of evidence than is the case now.”
How are you in a position to make such a radical suggestion? Cabinet ministers say that Netanyahu is functioning just fine and showing impressive fortitude.
“How can they possibly know such a thing? Because his lips don’t tremble during cabinet meetings? This isn’t the question at all. The question is what are the considerations and motivations that he chooses as the head of the government when he is subject to criminal investigations. The test is not how [Tourism Minister] Yariv Levin perceives him to be performing. I also ask myself why we’re not seeing the coalition members expressing any unhappiness with having a prime minister who is the subject of so many investigations. And the answer apparently is that they’re afraid.”
They feel no shame, and Netanyahu isn’t going to take a leave of absence. Your suggestions aren’t going to happen.
“And therefore, so that this absurd situation will go on for as short a time as possible, the attorney general’s office headed by Mendelblit has a crucial mission: to dramatically accelerate the legal proceedings, starting right now and all the way to their completion. The pace at which material is examined and decisions are formulated ought to be much, much speedier. It should be worked on day and night, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. That’s how we worked in the Olmert cases, with great speed and with the help of attorney Uri Corb, who managed the file single-handedly, while I looked on in amazement to see how, in just days, he was able to formulate serious and soundly based legal opinions when it took others months. There’s no reason the same thing shouldn’t happen with Netanyahu’s cases. The state prosecutor’s office is already very familiar with the material. In my estimation, if the police’s evidentiary basis is adopted by the attorney general, it should take somewhere between a few weeks and a few months. Case 1000 and Case 2000 are also a whole lot simpler than the Olmert and [Avigdor] Lieberman cases, for example.”
You’re talking about accelerated proceedings? In the Olmert cases, you did act quickly, but you also played a part in one of the longest examples of foot-dragging in the history of public corruption cases – the Lieberman affairs.
“First off, I believe there is a huge difference between the prime minister, the country’s top public official, and someone who’s serving as foreign minister.”
Lieberman wasn’t yet foreign minister at the time when you dragged out the handling of his criminal cases. He kept the Netanyahu government alive and appointed all the ministers who were responsible for the law enforcement system while he was still a suspect. In many ways, what he said, went.
“Still, he wasn’t the person at the head of the system. There’s a difference.”
And having said that, how do you explain the fiasco?
“I have no argument that can justify how long it took us to make a decision in the Lieberman case. When I say a justifying argument, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have explanations or descriptions of how it happened, okay? The three years [2009-2012] during which we discussed the decision of whether to file an indictment against Lieberman should have been a lot less, something like six months to a year. We messed up.”
Lador said no
Here’s a story about the Lieberman case that hasn’t been told before. At a relatively late stage in the handling of the case there were talks among a few top people in the Justice Ministry about the fate of the Lieberman file. Someone who was present at the meetings that took place in the office of Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein told Haaretz Magazine that one thing that came up in the talks was the concern that the team headed by attorney Avia Alef, the former head of the financial division in the State Prosecutor’s Office, who oversaw the Lieberman case, would not be able to lead a complex mega-case in court. Weinstein’s inclination at the time was to close the case. Lador thought there was sufficient evidence to indict the foreign minister. Then, during a meeting between them, Weinstein made Lador an offer that was hard to refuse: “If you agree to serve as the lead prosecutor in the Lieberman case, I’ll file the indictment against him,” he told him. Lador said no.
How could you flee such a responsibility?
“I did no such thing, in this case or any other case.”
If you had said yes, Lieberman would have been tried on serious charges.
“Attorney General Weinstein did say in our conversation that if I appeared as the lead prosecutor in the case, he would approve the filing of the full, broader indictment against Lieberman. My answer was, ‘Look if the intention – and this is certainly my intention – is to play an active part in the legal proceeding against Lieberman, i.e., that I would personally sign the indictment, come to court and make the opening statement, and serve as the prosecution’s representative in court at sensitive and significant moments, that I would question the key witnesses and take part in the summations – then I agree to that wholeheartedly. But if your intention is really for me to be the head of the prosecution team in this case – then I absolutely cannot take that on.”
But why? When Dorit Beinisch was state prosecutor she led the court case against the Jewish underground. Was the Lieberman case less important?
“That was my response. Taking on a case like that, in the final year of my term as state prosecutor, when there were countless reforms on the table, when you have to manage the entire system and make decisions in countless cases – there was no way I could say yes to such a proposal.”
Do you still think that the Lieberman cases involving the millions that went into accounts in Cyprus, into the account of his daughter Michal’s company, justified an indictment against him?
“Definitely. I have no doubt that the material justified an indictment. If it had been up to me, the charges would have been filed and we would have dealt with the difficulties of this complex case, which mainly derived from the inability to bring before the court evidence from countries that weren’t thrilled to cooperate with us.”
The Olmert days
A few months ago, Lador met with Attorney General Mendelblit. They’ve known each other for many years, and on the eve of Mendelblit’s selection for the position, Lador sent a letter overflowing with superlatives to the search committee. He is still convinced of Mendelblit’s integrity and professionalism.
Exactly 10 years ago, Lador stood where Mendelblit stands today: overseeing an extensive criminal investigation against a sitting prime minister. In the spring of 2008, American businessman Moshe Talansky landed in Israel and traveled to his son’s home in the Diskin Towers in Jerusalem. He didn’t know that when he passed through border control, a report was immediately sent to top police officials, who at the time had Talansky in their sights.
At six the next morning, he was awakened by the police, who brought him in for questioning, in which he told them that for years he had provided Ehud Olmert with cash-filled envelopes. The day after his testimony, Police Commissioner David Cohen hastened to send Olmert a secret letter in which he asked him to clear one hour of his packed schedule for a criminal investigation.
At the end of that dramatic week, on Friday morning, Olmert was questioned at his official residence in Jerusalem and denied receiving the money. Not long afterward, in an unprecedented move, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz and State Prosecutor Lador decided to hear preliminary testimony from Talansky in court, while he was in the country, testimony that led to the downfall of the Olmert government.
Since the criminal investigations against Netanyahu began, the attorney general has been heard to say that if he had been in charge then, he wouldn’t have taken preliminary testimony from Talansky. This position, which the attorney general stated in private and which is being revealed here publicly for the first time, reached Lador’s ears, and he decided to inquire about it when he met with Mendelblit.
“He told me that these reports didn’t reflect the reality, and that he also was not familiar with what our thinking and considerations were.”
If you could do it over again, would you repeat this move, which basically cut short Olmert’s time as prime minister?
“Absolutely. The decision to take preliminary testimony from Talansky was made unanimously and approved by two courts, including the Supreme Court.”
In his recently published memoir, Olmert writes about a meeting he had with President George W. Bush while the criminal investigations were ongoing. “He asked who was causing me the big troubles,” Olmert recalled. “I presumed he was referring to the state prosecutor [Lador]. ‘Was he appointed by you?’ Bush asked. I replied that he was appointed by the government that I lead . ‘If that’s the case, fire him.’ And I replied: ‘Easier said than done.’”
Olmert now claims that you persecuted him out of personal and political motives.
“I persecuted him for political motives? I had voted for him in the election, and I still think he is a man blessed with talents that, from my vantage point as a citizen of this country, seem very positive, and maybe there was also a chance he would lead more significant moves.”
It’s now known that Olmert was conducting serious peace negotiations with Syria and with the Palestinians when you brought down the hatchet of the preliminary testimony [of Talansky]. Considering the past as well as the events of the current moment, shouldn’t prosecutors and police take national interests into account in their deliberations about whether to launch a criminal investigation against a prime minister?
“No. What you’re basically saying is – evidence has been accumulated that establishes a reasonable likelihood of conviction in a criminal case, but I’m going to decide to close the case against a prime minister because of the type of consideration you just mentioned. Is that what you mean?”
“I don’t know any prosecutor who would be ready to take such a step. I was asked regarding the Olmert cases, ‘What are you doing? Don’t you realize that the prime minister is on the verge of a peace agreement and you’re bothering him with investigations?’ My response then and my response to your question now is, ‘If I see that there is evidence to support the investigation, but I close it because the prime minister is now doing something that is perceived by a certain part or a large part of the public as advancing national interests, I’d essentially be falsifying my decision and this is something that would immediately be perceived by my subordinates. I would be betraying my position by writing something that is not true. In that kind of situation, the principle that everyone is equal before the law would be rendered meaningless.”
The philosophy of the state prosecution today seems to be that there’s reason to take into account the desire of the voters who wanted Netanyahu as prime minister, and therefore extra caution must be taken, and an indictment must be ironclad if it’s to be issued, because a not-guilty verdict would be a disaster. Do you also think the voters’ desire should be a consideration?
“Not at all. Nor do I purport to know what that desire really is, in an era in which we don’t have a direct election.”
Would the exoneration of a prime minister facing serious criminal charges be a disaster, in your view?
“We still live in a country where everyone is equal before the law, right? Exoneration is never a disaster for anyone.”
And if another election were held with Netanyahu reelected despite everything the public knows about him? Should that have any weight in the decision on whether to indict him?
“No. That wouldn’t make any difference to me.”
What do you think about the fact that no statement has been made yet by Netanyahu in the submarine affair [which concerns suspicions that officials took bribes to advance the sale of foreign-made ships and submarines to Israel’s navy]?
“In my view, the more you defer obtaining a statement from any suspect or witness, the more potential harm is done to the investigation and to your ability to obtain a statement from that person later on that is untainted by outside influences. This is why in the Talansky case we sought to obtain a statement from Olmert within 24 hours, before he could learn of the details. I don’t know what reason there could be for not obtaining a statement from someone who dealt with the matter of the naval vessels for years, when that same deal and certain aspects of it were also handled over a very significant period by lawyers from the Shimron-Molho firm who are closely associated with him.”
Do you recall any precedent for what we’ve seen in the submarines case – a public announcement by the attorney general and state prosecutor that the prime minister isn’t a suspect in the affair?
“I can’t recall such a precedent. To the best of my knowledge, presenting the public with a picture of who is and who isn’t a suspect isn’t something that’s done in the early stages of an investigation.”
Can this kind of statement – “Netanyahu is not a suspect” – possibly harm the investigation?
“There is certainly that potential. Perhaps the motivation for this statement is some other interest altogether.”
Are you implying a security interest, perhaps? Ensuring the purchase of the submarines? If such an interest is really behind the statement, is that appropriate? Does it supersede the public interest of there being thorough criminal proceedings?
“I don’t know of any such consideration that is legitimate, and I don’t know if it really exists here.”
In Case 1000, Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu were not questioned simultaneously. Generally speaking, are you familiar with any investigation in which two people involved in the same suspected criminal activity are not questioned separately but simultaneously?
“Everyone knows the rule, about which there is no disagreement, that there’s a very big advantage [for prosecutors] in simultaneous interrogation, or of the interrogation of one suspect being immediately followed by that of another when two or more people are involved in the same matter, because the alternative leaves open the possibility of coordinated testimony.”
Mendelblit approved the signing of three state’s-evidence agreements in the Netanyahu cases – in other words, he let three key suspects avoid punishment. Can the ordinary citizen conclude from this that there’s a very strong chance that Netanyahu will be indicted?
“I’m pretty sure the state prosecution didn’t forge these agreements in order to move ahead in an investigation that’s destined to be closed without indictments. The objective of these agreements is to directly obtain evidence about aspects vital to proving the offenses that Netanyahu, and perhaps others, are suspected of committing.
“If you have enough evidence, it’s better not to recruit people to turn state’s evidence. But usually, with criminal offenses and especially bribery offenses, the offenses aren’t committed in public and you need the testimony of someone who was a party to it. One of the difficulties in the Lieberman case, for instance, was that there was no state witness to tell the story, to illuminate and assemble the evidentiary puzzle.”
In the past, people who turned state’s evidence, in many cases, didn’t pay a price for the crimes they committed. In many instances, they weren’t even tried at all. This trend has changed in recent years. Attorney Liat Ben-Ari was one of the leading proponents of this change and she’s now working on the Netanyahu cases. And she of all people agreed to forgo serious penalties for state witnesses Shlomo Filber and Nir Hefetz, in exchange for their testimony against Netanyahu.
“I agree completely. Ben-Ari has been one of the most prominent voices for changing the trend regarding punishment for state witnesses. I think that in the state’s-evidence agreements with Filber and Hefetz, the state prosecution was seeking a solid contribution, and they weren’t playing a game that was only meant to hear another version of events that ultimately wouldn’t be deemed serious and credible. This is one reason that the investigations that are done before coming to such an agreement – certainly in a case of this type – are extremely meticulous and thorough as to the witness’ ability to provide substantial and important factual details that contribute to cracking the case and revealing an accurate factual picture in combination with external evidence.
“I used to meet personally with every state witness we recruited to determine if this was someone who could really bring his story to court and if he genuinely understood what it means to stick to the truth. I even tried to get them to like the idea that they were crossing the lines. One of them eventually went on to become a police officer. I also met with Shmuel Dechner, who turned state’s evidence in the Holyland case [against Olmert and others], several times.”
You pushed for an agreement to be signed with him even though he was considered a liar and you feared there was a good chance he would die before the end of the trial.
“With Dechner, it was take it or leave it. We didn’t apprehend him; he came to us and offered, in return for certain conditions, to provide details about the Holyland scheme, using evidence in his possession that ultimately helped to obtain the convictions, despite what you rightly noted – his tremendous skill at lying. We knew we had to unravel this affair. Each one of us understood that there was a supreme public interest in exposing the corruption, which was, literally, sky-high. We’d never encountered such a case before, in which the corruption was just so colossal.”