In a decision that could have a far-reaching impact on the future of Israeli politics, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said Friday he has rejected a request from Benjamin Netanyahu to delay an announcement regarding the possible indictment of the prime minister on corruption charges until after election day.
Netanyahu’s attorneys met with Mandelblit last week and asked him not to announce whether he intends to file indictments in three corruption cases against Netanyahu before the April 9 ballot, insisting that doing so would amount to “intervention” in the elections.
In a letter sent to Netanyahu’s legal team, however, Mandelblit said there was “no impediment whatsoever to publishing a decision, however impactful it may be, on filing an indictment against the prime minister, subject to a hearing, before the election date.”
Rather, he said, he had a responsibility to finish the process as quickly as possible and that it was “in the public interest” for that to take place before the elections.
The letter stressed that the state prosecutors are acting out of legal considerations alone, and cannot allow political considerations to play a role in the progress or handling of the case.
Mandelblit argued that delaying the announcement of his decision because of Netanyahu’s concern that it could hurt him politically would itself amount to intervention in the elections.
Hinting that the decision to call elections may have even been an attempt by Netanyahu to push off the decision, the attorney general noted that the Knesset vote to set early elections came just days after he and the team of prosecutors working on the cases said they were beginning a final review of the material.
“This process has already been decided, even before the decision to advance the elections, and there is no justification to deviate from it,” Mandelblit said of the timetable.
Mandelblit said he has now finished examining the evidence and is nearing a decision on whether to indict, which is expected to be announced next month.
Police have recommended Netanyahu be indicted for bribery in three separate cases, including one which involves accusations he gave out regulatory favors in exchange for positive media coverage.
Israelis will head to the polls on April 9, in an election largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, who has served as prime minister for nearly a decade. He has denied the accusations against him and characterized the investigations as a witch hunt driven by the media, the left and the police, meant to remove him from power by undemocratic means.
Netanyahu had seemed on course to a smooth re-election, but the entry into the campaign this week of former chief of staff Benny Gantz has changed the picture. Polls now show that Gantz could pose an electoral threat to Netanyahu, especially if he were to arrange to head an alliance between his new Israeli Resilience Party and Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid.
“It looks like the attorney general has given in to the pressure from the left and the media to file indictments against Prime Minister Netanyahu no matter what — and during the campaign,” Netanyahu said in a statement Thursday night responding to media reports ahead of Mandelblit’s letter.
He claimed Mandelblit had made the decision despite his own legal team giving the attorney general’s office some 60 names of “significant witnesses” to probe before making a decision.
“The ink [on the request] has not yet dried when the prosecution rushed this evening to leak that they have no intention to examine these vital witnesses,” Netanyahu’s statement said.
In his statement, Netanyahu repeated a previous accusation that the indictment process was being rushed in order to hurt his campaign. “In the most fateful decision in the history of Israeli law, a process that takes a year and a half is being squeezed into a few days,” he claimed.
If Mandelblit announces he intends to indict, Netanyahu would be granted a hearing to argue against the charges, a process that may take months. A final indictment decision would thus likely come only after election day.
Netanyahu is a suspect in three separate corruption investigations.
In Case 4000, reportedly the most serious of the three, he is suspected of having advanced regulatory decisions as communications minister and prime minister from 2015 to 2017 that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm, in exchange for positive coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site.
Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving benefits and gifts worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors, including Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, in exchange for assistance on various issues. Some reports have suggested that Mandelblit is leaning toward a charge of breach of trust in this case.
Netanyahu has vowed not to step down if Mandelblit announces that he intends to indict him, pending a hearing, in any of the cases against him, asserting that the law does not require him to do so. Mandelblit has confirmed that this is the case.
Israeli law only requires that a prime minister step down if convicted, but experts have suggested that Netanyahu could have a “problem” if he sought to stay in office after a formal indictment was filed at the completion of a hearing process. Under law and High Court of Justice precedent, ministers other than the prime minister are required to step down in such a situation. There is no clear legal rule regarding the prime minister.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.