Israel's Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced on Thursday his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases, pending a hearing.
■ In Case 4000, Netanyahu is accused of providing regulatory concessions to Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecommunications, in exchange for favorable coverage from Bezeq’s news website, Walla. The charge: Bribery and breach of trust.
■ In Case 1000, in which the prime minister is alleged to have accepted gifts from wealthy business figures in return for political favors. The charge: Fraud and breach of trust.
■ In Case 2000, which centers around a deal between the prime minister and Arnon Mozes – favorable coverage in return for damaging Sheldon Adelson's competing newspaper, Israel Hayom. The charge: Fraud and breach of trust.
Mendelblit's decision comes after three years of investigations, and it marks the first time in Israel's history that an attorney general announces an indictment for bribery against an incumbent prime minister.
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"You have hurt the image of public service and public faith in it," Mendelblit wrote to Netanyahu in his decision. "You acted in a conflict of interests, you abused your authority while taking into account other considerations that relate to your personal interests and the interests of your family. You corrupted public servants working under you."
Netanyahu's Likud party released a statement slamming the decision, which it called "political persecution." Likud blasted the attorney general for the timing of the publication of his decision.
"A publication of the decision a mere month before the election, without giving the prime minister an opportunity to refute these false claims is a blatant and unprecedented interference in the election. It has one goal: to topple the right-wing government headed by Netanyahu so as to give rise to a left-wing government headed by Lapid and Gantz. We cannot let this happen."
According to Likud, "No one is surprised by the announcement of the attorney general, which came after three years of enormous pressures that were laid against him to file an indictment at any price – even when there is nothing. Just to do it before the election."
Likud added: "The campaign against the prime minister began with an attempt to accuse him of four corruption cases. Even now, before the hearing, three of them have collapsed. The rest of the claims will also collapse like a house of cards when the prime minister faces state's witnesses, brings forward dozens of witnesses who have oddly not been interrogated and produces the documents and protocols that prove that all of his actions and decisions were done according to law."
Earlier Thursday, Likud petitioned the High Court in a last-minute bid to block the announcement, but was rejected. In response, the ruling party said the court failed to stop the left from meddling in the election.
A request by Netanyahu’s attorneys to put off announcing the decision until after the April 9 general election was dismissed by Mendelblit, who cited “the principle of equality before the law and the public’s right to know about such important decisions.” Netanyahu responded by accusing the attorney general of "surrendering" to the left and the media.
Mendelblit’s decision comes after months of lengthy discussions that involved 20 senior Justice Ministry officials who dove into the mass of evidence in the cases, which took three years to investigate.
Some 140 witnesses gave evidence in the cases, including three who turned state’s evidence – Ari Harow, Shlomo Filber and Nir Hefetz – and five current or former government ministers – Yair Lapid, Gilad Erdan, Yariv Levin, Zeev Elkin and Tzipi Livni. Numerous journalists also gave evidence, along with four former senior editors of the Walla website and former Yedioth editor Ron Yaron. The opinions of the team of prosecutors who accompanied the investigations, headed by Liat Ben Ari and Jonathan Tadmor, filled 800 pages.
In Case 4000, Netanyahu’s line of defense is similar to that of Elovitch: He claims no connection between his actions regarding Bezeq and what went on in Walla’s editorial offices, and that the decisions Netanyahu made regarding the telecom giant when he was communications minister were reasonable, had the support of the ministry’s professionals and were approved by the legal gatekeepers. Netanyahu argues that he signed the documents approving the merger between Bezeq and Yes, both owned by Elovitch, the way he signed many documents in the piles set before him.
He also claims that not only did he not get favorable coverage from the Walla news site, as is alleged, but on the contrary, coverage of him was often hostile, consistent with the policy of the owners who wanted fair and balanced coverage.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu argues that it’s permissible to accept gifts from friends. He says he never asked for cigars or champagne from his friend Arnon Milchan because he didn’t need to. “Milchan was swimming in cigars and champagne,” he told journalists. He added that his late attorney, Jacob Weinroth, had allowed him to take gifts from friends. If his wife was asking Milchan or James Packer for gifts on her own, he was not aware of it.
Netanyahu categorically denies that there was a quid-pro-quo relationship between himself and Milchan. As proof he recalled how he fought to close Channel 10 (in which Milchan had a stake) and that as finance minister he had worked to break Milchan’s monopoly in the auto import market.
Another line of defense, which also has come up in Case 2000, is that the investigations against him were discriminatory, because police didn’t similarly question another good friend of Milchan’s, Yair Lapid. In Case 2000, Netanyahu complains that none of the MKs who advanced the Israel Hayom bill (which would have benefited Yedioth Aharonot) were questioned by police. Both he and Mozes also claim, in response to the incriminating recordings of them making commitments to one another, that they were merely toying with each other and neither had any intention of keeping his promises to the other.