After AG’s decision, left calls on PM to resign while right backs him up

After AG’s decision, left calls on PM to resign while right backs him up

Labor urges Netanyahu to ‘put an end to national shame’; Likud: Mandelblit seeks to hand election to left; most coalition parties say premier enjoys presumption of innocence

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a Knesset State Control Committee meeting on December 3, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a Knesset State Control Committee meeting on December 3, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Likud party slammed the announcement by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit Thursday that he intends to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among other suspects, in three corruption cases, accusing Israel’s top law enforcement official of an “unprecedented intervention in the elections.”

Likud’s statement flatly accused the attorney general of seeking to torpedo Netanyahu’s chances in the upcoming April 9 election.

“A one-sided publication of the attorney general’s statement barely a month before the elections, without the prime minister being given the opportunity to disprove these false allegations, is a callous, unprecedented intervention in the elections. Its goal: to topple the right-wing government led by Netanyahu and establish a left-wing government headed by Lapid-Gantz. That can’t be permitted,” the party said in a statement.

“No one is surprised by the attorney general’s announcement, which comes after three years of massive pressure on him from the media, the left and legal officials to indict the prime minister at any cost — even when there’s nothing [to the charges],” it said.

“This is a political witch hunt. The persecution of the prime minister began with an attempt to rope him with four different bribery cases. Now, even before the hearing, three of those have collapsed,” the party said, apparently referring to the lesser breach of trust charges expected to be brought in Cases 1000 and 2000, and to the fact that Netanyahu is not a suspect in Case 3000.

“The rest of the claims will also collapse like a house of cards when the prime minister confronts the state’s witnesses, brings dozens of witnesses who strangely were not questioned and presents the documents and minutes proving that all his actions and decisions were lawful,” it added.

Mandelblit’s decision is not final. Netanyahu will have an opportunity to overturn it in a hearing expected to take place in the months following Election Day on April 9. The process could take up to a year.

Prime Minister and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media in Kfar Maccabiah, Ramat Gan, February 21, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The decision marks the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister has been told he faces criminal charges, and casts a heavy shadow over Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.

Netanyahu will be charged with fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery in Case 4000. Despite reported recommendations from the state attorney and police that the prime minister stand trial for bribery in all of the cases, Mandelblit opted for the lesser charge of fraud and breach of trust in two of the affairs.

Netanyahu will give a statement to the media on the decision at 8 p.m.

Reactions to the decision fell along party lines. All coalition parties except Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu publicly backed the prime minister, saying he continued to enjoy a presumption of innocence.

Following news of Mandelblit’s decision, the New Right party said: “We respect the attorney general’s decision, but just as the attorney general himself said he would come to the [pre-indictment] hearing with an open mind, so too we will wait [to judge Netanyahu] until after the hearing. The New Right party will ask the president to appoint Netanyahu to form the next coalition.”

The Union of Right Wing Parties, an alliance of far-right political factions, backed Netanyahu as “innocent until proven guilty,” and warned his possible fall could lead to the establishment of a “Palestinian terror state.”

In a statement, the party said it would still “recommend after the elections that Prime Minister Netanyahu be the candidate to form a strong and stable right-wing government” despite the indictment announcement.

“However,” it added, “in light of past bitter experience, it is now clearer than ever that the Union of Right Wing Parties — the only slate truly committed to the Land of Israel — must be large and strong so that we will not find ourselves the day after the elections with a… government that could lead us to the establishment of a Palestinian terror state.”

Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman also backed Netanyahu.

“In Israel, the only body authorized to rule whether someone is guilty or innocent is a court,” Liberman said in a statement. “The presumption of innocence is assured for anyone, including the prime minister. Therefore, as far as we’re concerned, Netanyahu can run in the Knesset elections like anyone else.”

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party said in a statement it would continue to back Netanyahu for prime minister.

“As we’ve said from the start, Shas will support only Netanyahu for prime minister.” The party said Netanyahu “is the most appropriate person to lead the country at this time, and we will support him for prime minister as long as the law allows” him to hold the post.

United Torah Judaism said it viewed Netanyahu as innocent until proven otherwise, confirming it will continue supporting him “especially during this sensitive time, as long as the law permits it.”

Left-wing parties said the announcement showed Netanyahu could not continue to lead the country.

Labor Party chief Avi Gabbay charged that “Netanyahu is destroying everything to save himself. Israelis don’t want a corrupt leadership. The prime minister shames the people and the country. Netanyahu, resign. Put an end to this national shame. Don’t run your [legal] fight from the Prime Minister’s Residence.”

Opposition leader MK Shelly Yachimovich, of the Labor Party, said, “As of this sad moment, Netanyahu is fighting for his personal life, is unfit to fight for the lives of the citizens of the state, is unfit to be prime minister, and is unfit to even run in the elections.”

She added: “I call on Netanyahu: if you are a patriot who loves the country, go and clear your name without dragging an entire country with you as a hostage. You are not superman, there is no human being who can make crucial national decisions without them being affected by a personal struggle on their mind 24 hours a day.”

Labor MK Itzik Shmuli said the announcement marked “the end to the spin. Netanyahu said ‘There won’t be anything because nothing happened,’ and now it turns out there’s a serious indictment, because serious crimes were committed that could lead to prison time. Netanyahu is neck-deep in legal troubles and has lost the moral standing to continue leading our country. Every decision he makes from now on will be under this shadow.”

He urged Netanyahu’s coalition partners to announce “they won’t sit under any circumstances in his government.”

The Meretz party said it was “a day of introspection for all those who have defended Netanyahu, and those who sat in his government in recent years. Netanyahu will be tried, but the Likud and the right in its entirety are collaborators in his corruption. We must send these corrupt people home.”

Thursday’s announcement of the intention to indict the prime minister — who long argued that the decision should be postponed until after the vote so that it would not affect public opinion — places Netanyahu’s legal situation front and center in the campaign.

The decision to press charges, pending a hearing, in the criminal investigations against Netanyahu could have a game-changing impact on the elections, a Times of Israel poll published earlier Thursday showed. The ruling Likud party could lose both a significant chunk of support, as well as its ability to form a coalition after the vote, the survey, published overnight Wednesday-Thursday, indicated.

In Case 1000, involving accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for favors, Mandelblit said he intends to charge Netanyahu with breach of trust — a somewhat murkily defined offense relating to an official violating the trust the public has placed in him. Milchan is not to be charged.

In Case 2000, involving accusations Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth, Mandelblit will seek to also charge the premier with breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery. The case is said to have been a contentious one in Mandelblit’s office, with many prosecution officials reportedly arguing that Netanyahu should be charged with bribery, while Mandelblit considered not charging the prime minister at all.

In Case 4000, widely seen as the most serious against the premier, Netanyahu is accused of having advanced regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. In that case Mandelblit announced he intends to charge both Netanyahu and Elovitch with bribery.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in all three cases, and has alleged that the investigations against him are a “witch hunt” involving the left, the media and the police relentlessly pressuring a “weak” attorney general.

Ehud Olmert, the country’s first former premier to serve prison time, stepped down from office in 2008 during the investigation into him, but before the intention to file charges was announced. He served 16 months in prison on corruption offenses and was released in July 2017.

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