Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will be holding talks throughout the coming week with the aim of reaching a decision by the end of November on whether to file charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a series of graft probes, Israel’s Channel 12 and Channel 13 both said Friday.
The discussions will be heavily focused on Case 4000, seen as the most severe of the three criminal cases facing Netanyahu, with the prosecution discussing the defense team’s potential objections to a bribery charge, according to an unsourced Channel 13 news report.
Mandelblit would likely rule that Netanyahu could not serve as prime minister if he was charged with bribery, the report said, emphasizing it was not known whether Mandelblit would indeed decide to level the charge against Netanyahu. In a draft charge sheet issued in February, Mandelblit outlined charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000, and fraud ad breach of trust in two other cases, Case 1000 ad Case 2000, against the prime minister.
Criminal charges would not be a legal impediment to Netanyahu’s running for reelection if Israel is forced into another round of elections amid months of political deadlock, the report noted, but a legal battle would likely ensue were he to be reelected.
In Case 4000, Netanyahu is suspected of pushing regulatory decisions financially benefiting the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications group, Shaul Elovitch, in return for ongoing positive coverage from Bezeq’s Walla news site.
According to Channel 13, when Netanyahu met Sunday with Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz for the first time since the latter was tasked last week with forming a coalition, the two discussed the premier taking a leave of absence if he is indicted.
Netanyahu told Gantz his Likud party would not vote to replace him, even before an unprecedented third round of elections, the report said.
“Do not drag your feet and build on me being ousted [by Likud]. Ultimately we’ll go to elections and you’ll be the one ousted,” Netanyahu reportedly said.
After both Gantz and Netanyahu were unable to secure a majority with their respective allies in the September 17 elections, President Reuven Rivlin suggested a unity government in which power would be equally divided and Netanyahu and Gantz would each serve two years as prime minister. Rivlin implied, but did not specify, that Netanyahu would take an open-ended leave of absence if or when he is indicted in one or more of the probes in which he faces charges. Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority.
According to a Channel 13 report Thursday, state prosecutors have begun drafting a legal opinion recommending Netanyahu stand trial in all three cases, following the completion of the hearing process last month.
Prosecutors believe Mandelblit should keep the original proposed charges intact in all three cases, unconvinced by the defense’s efforts during the hearing to disprove the accusations, the report said.
Mandeblit on Sunday began consultations with state prosecutors to make a decision on whether to indict Netanyahu in the three corruption cases.
Following the hearing, Channels 12 and 13 both quoted unnamed sources saying some on Mandelblit’s team are inclined to drop the most serious charge — of bribery in Case 4000 — though both reports stressed that the decision is ultimately Mandelblit’s.
The attorney general published the draft charges at length in February.
Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, has repeatedly claimed that he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media, the left, police and the state prosecution, designed to oust him from power.
On Friday, Channel 12 reported that Nir Hefetz, a former Netanyahu spokesman and a key witness in Case 4000, told investigators Elovitch repeatedly pressed for the firing of the Communication Ministry’s director-general at the time, Avi Berger, in order to advance his company’s interests.
Berger was opposed to Bezeq’s purchase of the Yes satellite TV provider from Eurocom Group, which was owned by Elovitch. The deal eventually went ahead and is said to have earned Elovitch hundreds of millions of dollars.
Hefetz told police that Elovitch “pushed [the issue] hard. He had conversations with me about it, too — that Bibi needs to fire [Berger] already… because he’s the one stopping it… he’s the one blocking the Yes deal.”
It was clear Elovitch wanted the message conveyed to Netanyahu, Hefetz said, adding that he was often served as an intermediary between the Netanyahus and Elovitch regarding coverage on Walla.
Testimonies from the case have indicated that coverage of the Netanyahus on Walla was repeatedly changed and softened following demands by the prime minister’s family.