Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit hailed the work of prosecutors in the corruption investigations involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, according to an Israeli television report on Friday, described his decision to seek charges against the premier as a victory for the rule of law.
Mandelblit announced Thursday he intended to indict Netanyahu pending a hearing in three separate criminal cases for fraud, bribery and breach of trust, six weeks ahead of general elections on April 9.
Following the announcement, Mandelblit sent a letter to the legal team that oversaw the investigation and thanked them for their work on the cases, according to Channel 12 news.
“This is definitely not a happy day, but it is a very important day for a society that upholds the rule of law,” Mandelblit was quoted writing in the letter.
In a seeming nod to reported disagreements between himself and top prosecutors on whether one of the cases warranted bribery charges, Mandelblit — formerly Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary — stressed such differences were solely based on professional concerns.
“Even when there were disagreements, they were in good faith, in order to make the best decision. The deliberations were exemplary,” Mandelblit wrote.
Without your professional and dedicated work, I would not have been able to fulfill my duty to the citizens of the state and the rule of law, as I did today,” he added.
Mandelblit also reportedly singled out for praise State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan and State Prosecution’s Tax and Finance Department head Liat Ben-Ari, the chief prosecutor in Netanyahu’s cases, both of whom the premier accused in a speech Thursday evening of seeking to harm him for political reasons.
“Special thanks will be given to my partner, State Attorney Shai Nitzan. The work of the State Attorney’s Office must be led with a steady hand and tremendous insight, out of a deep obligation to the fight against corruption,” he said.
“I would like to pay special tribute to the cornerstone … who carried most of the burden with talent and courage, Liat Ben-Ari,” Mandelblit added.
The Justice Ministry on Thursday night rejected Netanyahu’s comments questioning the integrity of Nitzan and Ben-Ari, calling the prime minister’s claims “baseless and misleading.”
On Friday night, Eran Shendar, a former state attorney, sharply rebuked Netanyahu for going after Nitzan and Ben-Ari.
“The prime minister decided to burn down the club — the club of the rule of law — in order to save his public image,” Shendar told Channel 12.
Shendar, who served as state attorney from 2004-2007, also dismissed Netanyahu’s criticism of prosecutors for announcing the move ahead of elections, noting it was the prime minister himself who called to dissolve the Knesset and schedule an early vote.
“The one who decided on elections is Prime Minister Netanyahu,” said Shendar, describing the premier’s decision as a “gamble.”
Though the decision is not final, Mandelblit’s call to charge Netanyahu 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 his re-election campaign.
Netanyahu will have an opportunity to overturn the decision in a hearing expected to take place in the months following Election Day on April 9. The process could take up to a year.
The prime minister has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and claimed the investigations are part of efforts by the media and Israeli left to remove him from power.
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 fraud and breach of trust — the latter 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 its Walla news site. In that case Mandelblit announced he intends to charge both Netanyahu and Elovitch with bribery.
According to television reports Friday by Channel 13 and the Kan public broadcaster, Netanyahu’s former bureau chief David Sharan will serve as a key witness in the latter case if it goes to trial.
The reports said Sharan told investigators he was instructed by Netanyahu to advance a merger between Bezeq and the Yes satellite TV provider that prosecutors say Elovitch benefitted from financially.
Netanyahu told Channel 13 Friday that he had never instructed Sharan to act on his behalf in dealings with Elovitch.
Police have recommended charging Sharan in a separate investigation known as Case 3000, in which they alleged he received a bribe of NIS 130,000 ($35,270) in exchange for illicitly advancing the interests of the German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp in the government.
Police also recommended a number of other associates of Netanyahu be charged in that case, though the prime minister himself was not a suspect.
Sharan last month lost a Likud primary election for a spot on the ruling party’s electoral list reserved for a candidate from Tel Aviv. Netanyahu endorsed Sharan ahead of the primary.