In the basement of the Justice Ministry offices on Salah ad Din Street in Jerusalem, in a windowless room devoid of celluar service, the first day of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pre-indictment hearing begins Wednesday.
Twelve of Netanyahu's lawyers will cram in across from some 20 Justice Ministry officials who have been following the prime minister's corruption cases since 2016. At the premier's request, the hearing will span four days and will end on Monday evening – a day before the eve of the Jewish day of judgement, Yom Kippur.
By December, only several weeks away, the Justice Ministry aspires to reach a final decision.
The first two days will be dedicated to discussion of Case 4000 – which deals with a supposed quid-pro-quo with media mogul Shaul Elovitch. Next week, on Sunday and Monday, Netanyahu's lawyers will present their arguments regarding Case 1000 (which revolves around lavish gifts from billionaires) and Case 2000 (regarding Netanyahu's exchanges with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes).
Case 4000 is considered the most damning of the three, and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced in February that he intends to charge the prime minister with bribery. In Cases 1000 and 2000 the attorney general intends to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust.
At the head of the defense team stand Amit Hadad and Yosef Ashkenazi. They will be joined by Israel Wolnerman, additional lawyers from their offices, and, apparently, Attorney Ram Caspi who advises the team.
At the head of the Justice Ministry's team stands the man who will ultimately decide whether or not to file an indictment – Avichai Mendelblit. He will be joined by State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, the lead prosecutor on the Netanyahu cases Liat Ben-Ari, Deputy State Prosecutor Nurit Litman, and the Deputy Attorney Generals Raz Nizri and Amit Merari, among others.
The prime minister has declared several times that the cases will "collapse" during the hearing. As of now, it doesn't look like that possibility is on the table. Take, for example, the fact that of 20 lawyers who have worked on the Netanyahu cases, not a single one has said that the prime minister should be charged with a lesser crime than bribery.
Given that the cases against Netanyahu are circumstantial, the defense lawyers need to do more than refute a one or two pieces of "golden evidence." They would have to disassemble the entire puzzle built by the prosecutors and rebuild it based on evidence of an entirely different narrative – one that isn't criminal.
Case 4000, believed to be the most serious of the cases against Netanyahu, centers on suspicions that the prime minister acted to advance the interests of media mogul Shaul Elovitch in a manner that helped the Bezeq owner profit by more than a billion shekels. In return, Netanyahu and his wife Sara received favorable news coverage on the Walla website that is under Elovitch's control.
Netanyahu, who was acting as communications minister at the time, is suspected of benefitting Elovitch through state's witness Shlomo Filber, whom he appointed as his bureau chief.
In the draft indictment, text messages between the involved parties, including Elovitch, are quoted and tie news coverage of Netanyahu to his relations with Bezeq. The case is also built on testimony by state's witness Nir Hefetz, former media adviser for Sara Netanyahu, which links Netanyahu's actions to the Walla news site.
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.”
Netanyahu and Elovitch's defense maintains that there is no connection between Netanyahu's actions on behalf of Bezeq and the coverage on the Walla news site. The prime minister claims that the decisions he made on matters connected to the company were reasonable and that they were supported by all the professionals in the field.
According to Netanyahu, the merger he approved between Bezeq and the satellite company Yes, both owned by Elovitch, was solely technical.
Netanyahu also claims that Walla's news coverage of him was not sympathetic, but even hostile, and that he did not sway the coverage but rather helped adjust it to match the owner's policy, which claims to offer fair and balanced coverage. Netanyahu also claims that no one has ever been accused of bribery for receiving good press.
Case 2000 revolves around Netanyahu’s ties with Arnon (Noni) Mozes, the publisher of Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. The prime minister is suspected of offering to promote legislation that would curb Yedioth’s main competitor, the free daily newspaper Israel Hayom, in return for better coverage of the prime minister in Mozes’ publication as well as its news site Ynet.
Netanyahu later approached ministers Ze’ev Elkin and Yariv Levin and asked them to inquire whether such legislation to benefit Yedioth could be promoted during an election. The draft indictment alleges that by negotiating with Mozes over legislation, Netanyahu exploited his position as prime minister.
Netanyahu and Mozes both claimed that they didn’t plan on acting on the promises they made during the talks, and had only tried to manipulate one another. The premier also claimed that law enforcement shouldn’t get involved in the ties between public representatives and the media, and that the investigation against on him this matter reflects a bias on behalf of police.
Netanyahu’s attorneys have asked Mendelblit to interrogate the lawmakers who support the anti-Israel Hayom bill, but Mendelbit has rejected this request.
Case 1000 centers on suspicions that Netanyahu received lavish gifts worth hundreds of thousands of shekels from tycoons, primarily Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. Milchan and his former business partner, Australian billionaire James Packer, are suspected of having given Netanyahu and his wife boxes full of champagne bottles, cigars and other goods, per the Netanyahus’ demands.
The draft indictment says that “Netanyahu acted while manning public roles in favor of Milchan, in numerous personal and business affairs, while he was in a grave conflict of interests between the common good and his personal commitment to Milchan.”
Netanyahu’s main defense line in this case is his claim that “it’s permissible to receive presents from friends.” According to him, Milchan gave him the goods due to their personal friendship and not because of the sway he holds as prime minister.
Netanyahu also claims that his late attorney, Jacob Wienroth, told him that there was no issue with him receiving such gifts. Netanyahu sought to minimize the affair further by saying that his wife may have asked Milchan to make the purchases for her unbeknownst to him. As for his involvement in issues pertaining to Milchan, Netanyahu claimed that his motives were always appropriate.
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