Benjamin Netanyahu came to the defense of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit on Tuesday regarding the attorney general’s response to a High Court of Justice petition seeking to disqualify him from dealing with the pending investigations against the prime minister. The petition was filed by political activist Eldad Yaniv.
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But without discounting the High Court, the significant development from Netanyahu’s standpoint actually took place on Tuesday in the Tel Aviv District Court, where an indictment on bribery charges was filed against Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni. So is there really a connection between the two cases? Very much so.
One of the investigations against Netanyahu, known as Case 2000, involves allegations that he engaged in discussions with the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Arnon Mozes, over the prospect that the prime minister would work to have legislation passed that would benefit Mozes’ paper in return for favorable news coverage of Netanyahu. And the indictment of the Ashkelon mayor shows that the staff of the prosecutor’s office understands that skewing news coverage in favor of a politician is an improper benefit that could be construed as a bribe.
The first count against Shimoni sounds almost like a musical variation on the theme of the alleged ties between Netanyahu and Mozes. And the tone of both is equally grating. Shimoni is alleged to have developed a web of relations with local businessman and building contractor Yoel Davidi, in what was purportedly a corrupt arrangement of “give and take.”
The prosecution alleges that, with Shimoni’s knowledge, Davidi bought a local news website, Ashkelon 10, that had been highly critical of the mayor and city hall. It was clear that the purchase of the website would not generate profits for Davidi and immediately following the purchase, he shut it down with the mayor’s knowledge, according to the indictment.
The prosecution alleges that in return for Davidi’s actions, the mayor acted himself and through intermediaries to advance Davidi’s interests in Ashkelon, including steps to assist Davidi to acquire building permits for projects in the city, along with approvals needed by his businesses. The benefits to Davidi, who owned a local newspaper in Ashkelon, were also said to include steering city advertising in a way that would benefit him.
In the case of the alleged relationship between Netanyahu and Mozes, the prime minister was said to have been offered a shift in Yedioth’s hostile editorial line against the prime minster in return for steps by the government to weaken Mozes’ newspaper’s major competitor, Israel Hayom.
Shimoni’s case is being handled by the tax and economic division of the Tel Aviv district prosecutor’s office while Netanyahu’s Case 2000 involving Mozes in being handled out of the Jerusalem District. The indictment of Shimoni was approved personally by State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. The parallels with Case 2000 certainly would not have been lost on Nitzan.
The indictment of Shimoni undermines talk at the Justice Ministry that Case 2000 was weaker than another investigation against the prime minister, known as Case 1000, involving gifts and other perks allegedly provided to Netanyahu and his family by business figures. If there is a weak spot in the purported efforts of the prime minister and the Yedioth publisher to develop their own “give and take” relationship, it’s not a legal weakness. The question will be whether there is a factual basis demonstrating the intention by Netanyahu and Mozes to seal such a deal.
After the investigations are completed, the prosecution, led by Nitzan, will provide a legal opinion to Mendelblit in advance of a decision on Case 1000 and Case 2000. The opinion will be for internal use only, because the ultimate decision over whether to indict Netanyahu lies with Mendelblit.
The prospect that the High Court would accept Yaniv’s petition and disqualify Mendelblit, a former cabinet secretary who served the prime minister, from making decisions on the cases against Netanyahu are low. The High Court already expressed its full confidence in Mendelblit in a case challenging his nomination as attorney general. It can be presumed that the justices took into account that ultimately the attorney general might have to investigate the prime minister who appointed him.
Nevertheless, Yaniv’s petition is important. It reminds the attorney general that each and every step that he takes in the investigation of the prime minister is subject to oversight. One way in which Mendelblit can buttress public confidence in the integrity of his decisions is to rely on the professional stance of the state prosecutor’s office that reports to him. The Itamar Shimoni file demonstrates that the prosecutor’s office in fact does recognize the prospect that the influence on media outlets can constitute an improper benefit and a crime. What goes for a local newspaper in Ashkelon goes for every newspaper.