Analysis

An Indictment Is No Match for a Netanyahu Victory

His pre-indictment hearing is less than a month away, but it’s not the only legal event awaiting him after the election – yet another case could be reopened

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a state memorial ceremony at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, September 4, 2019.
REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

The pre-indictment hearing for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in three corruption cases is less than a month away, but it’s not the only legal event awaiting him after the election – the submarine case may be reopened as well. (For the latest election polls – click here)

In the affair, which involves the acquisition of submarines from German company ThyssenKrupp, the police recommended indicting attorney David Shimron, a close confidant of the Netanyahu family, because he gave legal advice to the ThyssenKrupp representative in Israel, Miki Ganor. A police investigation found that bribes were exchanged to advance the acquisition of military submarines from ThyssenKrupp.

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The police suspect that Shimron worked on behalf of Ganor, who turned state’s witness but then recanted. Shimron allegedly took advantage of his relationship with Netanyahu when working with bureaucrats and decision-makers.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit had previously stated that Netanyahu was not a suspect in the affair, known as Case 3000. But in March, TheMarker published an expose on his business ties with his cousin, U.S. businessman Nathan Milikowsky. It emerged that Netanyahu was a shareholder in a company controlled by Milikowsky that happened to be a ThyssenKrupp supplier. Netanyahu bought the shares at a particularly low price and sold them for a high profit.

Netanyahu’s business ties with Milikowsky were revealed by the State Comptroller’s permits committee. Netanyahu has offered different accounts of that relationship. In response to a newspaper article in 2017, Netanyahu denied having any business ties to his cousin or knowing anything about his business. After it was revealed that he owned shares in Milikowsky’s company, Netanyahu claimed he bought them as a private citizen. When it emerged that this couldn’t be true because the company didn’t exist when Netanyahu said he bought the shares, the prime minister once again changed his story and said he bought the share five years later.

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The changing accounts raise suspicions that Netanyahu may have tried to hide his business ties with Milikowsky from then-Attorney General Joseph Shapira. If he did indeed mislead or make false statements to Shapira, it could potentially be a breach of trust or false testimony.

The Milikowsky story came to light in the middle of the last election, which was held in April, and Mendelblit therefore did not comment on it in public. His office never said it was investigating – but it also didn’t say it wasn’t investigating.

In other words, the case is still open. There’s a good chance that following Tuesday’s election, Mendelblit will call for a probe into Netanyahu’s testimony and his business ties to Milikowsky. In fact, it’s possible Mendelblit already has the information he needs in this case, and just hasn’t made a public statement because of the pending election.

Netanyahu knows that for him, this election is winner-take-all. If he won’t be the next prime minister, he could face an indictment following the hearing, which is scheduled for early October, and he realizes that an indictment is likely.

Mendelblit is being very cautious regarding the three other criminal cases involving Netanyahu – the cigars-and-champagne affair and two cases involving positive coverage in exchange for favors. He wouldn’t file an indictment in any of them, certainly not for an offense as serious as bribery, if he had any serious doubts about the evidence.

Under this situation, the Prime Minister’s Office is the only fortress from which Netanyahu can wage his legal battle for survival.

Should Netanyahu win and form the next government, he would first off be able to argue that the public’s trust in him supersedes any decision to indict him. Second, he could also argue that this means he should go on serving as prime minister even if he is indicted. Mendelblit hasn’t publicly expressed an opinion about this to date, and it’s not clear what he thinks about it.

And third, Netanyahu could wage his legal battle from the privileged position of prime minister. Mendelblit has stood firm so far regarding the date of Netanyahu’s hearing, not budging on granting him another extension. But the Prime Minister’s Office can change things up in a way that even Mendelblit can’t get around. Take Netanyahu’s statement last weekend that “another military operation in Gaza could happen at any time.” Let’s see Mendelblit insist on giving Netanyahu a hearing during the middle of a military operation in Gaza.