Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is leaning toward not indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in one of the corruption probes against him, involving an alleged quid pro quo deal with one of Israel’s top newspaper publishers, according to television reports by Channel 13 and Kan 11 on Friday.
Mandelblit is said to be going against senior Justice Ministry officials should he decide not to pursue an indictment against Netanyahu in Case 2000.
The investigation focuses on suspicions that Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth owner Arnon “Noni” Mozes made an illicit agreement that would have seen the premier economically hobble rival daily Israel Hayom in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
No such agreement was ever implemented.
Mandelblit has been ambivalent about filing an indictment against Netanyahu in this particular case. He initially had deep reservations, then adopted prosecutors’ opinion that the prime minister should be indicted, before reverting back to his original position, according to the reports.
The attorney general is set to publish his decision on whether to charge – pending a hearing – Netanyahu in Case 2000, and two others, by next week, according to Channel 13.
Justice Ministry officials are said to have urged a bribery charge.
Israel’s national elections will be held on April 9 and Mandelblit is said to have wanted to get his announcement out of the way well before the vote, according to a Channel 12 report earlier this week.
On Saturday, former prime minister Ehud Barak accused Mandelblit of being an “unworthy person” and of dragging his heels, calling his indecision a “disgrace.”
“If Mandelblit attempts to close Case 2000, which goes against the recommendations of all the prosecutors and all the police investigators… there is strong evidence of a radical lack of impartiality,” Barak tweeted.
“Mandeblit, pull yourself together,” he added.
Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing in case 2000 — as in the two other cases against him — and pointed to his opposition to a bill that would have hampered the circulation of free newspapers, such as Israel Hayom.
The investigation is one of three cases in which police have recommended Netanyahu be indicted.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving benefits worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors in exchange for favors.
In Case 4000, Netanyahu 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.
Channel 13 reported on Saturday that the state prosecution believes the source of Mandelblit’s reservations to be the fear that an indictment in Case 2000 would weaken Case 4000, where Mandelblit is reported to be intending to indict the prime minister for bribery. According to the report, Netanyahu’s alleged agreement with Mozes occurred days before the regulatory decisions in favor of Elovitch.
Netanyahu became “media obsessed,” a source in the state prosecutor’s office told Channel 13.
Netanyahu has vowed not to step down if Mandelblit announces that he intends to indict him 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 seeks to stay in office after a formal indictment is 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.
It is believed that the hearing process, if one takes place, could last up to a year.
Insisting he has done nothing wrong, Netanyahu has argued that the media, the opposition, and the police are mounting a “witch hunt” against him and relentlessly pushing a “weak” attorney general to indict him in the corruption cases.