Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will decide whether to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next month, ahead of the April elections, the Haaretz daily reported on Sunday, drawing an angry response from the Israeli leader.
A source in the attorney general’s office told the newspaper that Mandelblit is expected to announce his decision in February, buttressing earlier reports.
According to the report, senior Justice Ministry officials and Mandelblit’s predecessors have informed him they believe it is his duty to announce his decision — which is subject to a hearing with the prime minister before any indictment may be filed — before the country goes to the polls.
In response, a statement issued to the newspaper on behalf of the prime minister suggested that Case 4000 — the Bezeq corruption probe — was being conducted without due process.
“Something smells. The average time to decide on cases of public figures in the State Prosecutor’s Office is 18 months. In Case 4000, it has taken less than 18 days. Nothing has ever run amok in this way in the history of Israeli law, and it is doubtful whether it has occurred in the history of democratic states,” the statement read.
“It is clear to all that the lack of good faith is not found in Prime Minister Netanyahu, but in those who again leaked the unbridled and baseless attacks against him,” the statement concluded.
Mandelblit has refused to publicly comment on the timeline for his decision.
The attorney general, speaking to Channel 10 news on the sidelines of a legal conference Thursday, said there would “clearly” be no requirement for Netanyahu to step down while a hearing process was in motion, but made no comment as to whether he would make his decision on a possible indictment in the course of the election campaign. When it was suggested to him that he could determine who Israel’s next prime minister would be, Mandelblit said he had “no idea” about that, and that such thoughts did not go through his mind.
The Haaretz report came hours after Netanyahu on Saturday released a video in which he used a joke about the amputation of an accused thief’s arm to convey the message that legal proceedings against him could lead to an election result which “cannot be taken back.”
מישהו יכול להחזיר לכם את הבחירות?
Posted by Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו on Saturday, 5 January 2019
The prime minister used the story to explain his position that any hearing process for a possible indictment, if begun, must be completed before election day.
“Listen to this good one. A man walks down the street in a certain Middle Eastern country,” said the prime minister, pointing to a map. “He has stitches in his shoulder and a prosthesis.
“He is asked what happened. He says: ‘I was convicted in the first instance of theft.’ And what happened next? ‘I was acquitted at the appeal.’
“Can someone give him back his arm, can someone give you back the elections?” Netanyahu asked, urging supporters to share the video.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid responded to the video, saying: “Listen to this good one. The prime minister thinks we’re in Saudi Arabia. Can someone give us back our sanity? If a person is indicted, they cannot run in the elections.”
The prime minister’s video came as a Hadashot TV news poll published Saturday showed 64% of respondents believe Mandelblit should publicize his decision regarding whether to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing, before the elections. Twenty-two percent of respondents said he should not, while 14% said they did not know. The survey questioned a representative survey of 507 Israelis on January 3, with a 4.4% margin of error.
However, a poll conducted on behalf of the Ma’ariv newspaper on January 2 found that Netanyahu’s Likud party would win the same number of seats as in the country’s last elections, even if Mandelblit decided to indict, pending a hearing.
In recent days, top Israeli legal officials have been pushing back against Netanyahu and those of his supporters who have criticized the state prosecution’s handling of the corruption cases against him, warning of efforts to undermine public faith in the rule of law.
Mandelblit complained in a speech on Thursday about irresponsible attempts to harm the rule of law of Israel and undermine public trust in the law enforcement hierarchies. State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan said Friday that a top Likud MK’s recent tweet protesting that millions of Israelis would “not accept” an indictment of Netanyahu was “super-problematic.” And state legal officials were quoted anonymously on Friday night’s Israeli TV broadcasts warning that Netanyahu’s political allies were working to delegitimize the state prosecution.
In some of his most combative comments to date on the corruption probes against him, Netanyahu lashed out Thursday at “the left” and at “the media,” claiming they were coordinating a “thuggish” campaign to pressure Mandelblit to announce an indictment against him in the near future in order to “steal” the April 9 elections. Netanyahu also reiterated a recent theme of his that it would be democratically unacceptable for Mandelblit to announce his intention to indict, pending the hearing to which Netanyahu would be entitled, since the hearing process is a lengthy one that could not possibly be concluded before election day.
“For years now, left-wing protesters and the media have leveled thuggish, inhumane pressure at the attorney general to get him to file an indictment against me at any cost — even when there’s nothing there,” the prime minister said. “This pressure is now reaching a climax. They’re trying to force the attorney general to brazenly intervene in the elections by ordering me to a hearing, despite knowing that it won’t be possible to conclude the hearing process by election day. It’s unconscionable to start a hearing process before elections that can’t be concluded by the elections.”
He had warned last week: “Imagine what happens if you oust a prime minister before the end of the hearing process, and at the end of the hearing it is decided to close the case. That would be absurd, and a terrible blow to democracy.”
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. Judicial officials have anonymously said that this is true, but that Netanyahu would have a “problem” if he sought to stay in office were a formal, final indictment subsequently filed at the completion of the hearing process.
Mandelblit told the conference Thursday that he and his team of investigators and prosecutors were immune to the political rhetoric swirling around the case, but also condemned some of it.
“All this ambient noise is just irrelevant. I’ve said for a long time… people can’t disturb our work, they won’t change anything, they can’t change anything. We’re working professionally — only the evidence will have a say,” Mandelblit told the conference. “We’re trying to work as quickly as possible, that’s my responsibility and obligation, but under no circumstances at the cost of professionalism. Professionalism always comes before anything else.”
Nitzan, the state prosecutor, who is reported to have completed his work on the three cases concerning the prime minister and to have recommended indicting Netanyahu in all of them, on Friday castigated comments made recently by Netanyahu’s coalition chief David Amsalem, who wrote in a tweet two weeks ago that the prime minister was plainly being framed and that if he was indicted “millions of people won’t accept this.”
Said Nitzan, “That’s a super-problematic thing to say.”
כל בוקר אני מתעורר ומקווה שמישהו יעצור את הטירוף הזה ויחזיר את המדינה לשפיות. כאזרח המדינה ולא כיו"ר הקואליציה, אני מבין שתופרים כאן תיקים לראש הממשלה ואי אפשר להשלים עם זה. יש גם יום אחרי ואם מישהו יחליט להעמיד לדין ראש ממשלה על תיקים הזויים כאלה, מיליוני אנשים לא יקבלו את זה. pic.twitter.com/wDxvwb4OqY
— דודי אמסלם???????? (@dudiamsalem) December 21, 2018
In his own reference to Amsalem’s comments and other such criticisms, Mandelblit said Thursday that “recently, unfounded claims have been made regarding the law enforcement hierarchies” seeking to “undermine the public’s trust in the professionalism and impartiality of our decisions” with assertions “that millions of people won’t accept this or that decision. Such utterances seek to harm the deepest foundations of the rule of law. They are irresponsible.”
Hadashot TV’s legal reporter said Friday that Mandelblit clearly “intends to press charges” against Netanyahu, noting that the attorney general recently consulted with former judges and legal veterans over the possible timing of such an announcement. During a meeting with these notables last week at a hotel outside of Jerusalem, Mandelblit reportedly said, “Announcing a [hearing] decision before elections is our duty to the public that is going to the polls. I will do my utmost to finish the work as soon as possible.”
Hadashot on Friday quoted unnamed legal sources hitting back at Netanyahu’s complaints that a hearing process could not be finished before the elections, and that therefore the attorney general should not start it before the elections.
It was Netanyahu who chose to call early elections, the sources were quoted as saying, so it was hardly reasonable for the prime minister to now complain that there was insufficient time to finish dealing with the case before Israelis go to the polls.
The rhetorical skirmishes have picked up steam amid unconfirmed press reports that Mandelblit is nearing the end of his examination of the evidence in Netanyahu’s graft cases. Channel 10 news reported on Wednesday that Mandelblit would be ready to make a decision on whether to seek an indictment by February.
Police have recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for bribery in all three of the probes. Mandelblit is the final authority on whether state prosecutors will ultimately press charges against a sitting prime minister.
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.
Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister hobble rival daily Israel Hayom in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth. Some reports have suggested that Mandelblit may close the case; Channel 10, by contrast, asserted Friday that state prosecutors are leaning toward a bribery charge.
In Case 4000, reportedly the most serious of the three, 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.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing, and has claimed the investigations are part of a political vendetta and witch hunt, aimed to oust him, involving the political left, the media and the police.