AG indicates Netanyahu pressure won’t delay decision on indictment
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'I need to work as fast as possible... make findings public'

AG indicates Netanyahu pressure won’t delay decision on indictment

Mandelblit agrees to meet PM’s attorneys, is reportedly set to reach decision in graft probes before April’s elections despite calls to postpone

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, right, during a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on December 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, right, during a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on December 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit indicated Thursday that he will turn down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request that he delay, until after the elections on April 9, his announcement on whether he will indict the prime minister on corruption charges.

The fact that Israel is holding early elections “is none of my business… It’s not something that affects me,” Mandelblit told Channel 12 news in comments broadcast Thursday. “I need to do my work as quickly as possible, although of course without compromising thoroughness and professionalism.”

Asked whether he intended to publish his conclusions before the elections, and whether it was important to do so, he said: “I am working as quickly as possible in order to get the work done and make the findings public — on condition that I am comfortable [with the findings] personally and professionally. Ultimately, it’s a question of professionalism.”

Meanwhile, in a letter to Netanyahu’s lawyer, which followed multiple reports that Mandelblit is poised to make a decision on an indictment by February, an official in the attorney general’s office said Thursday that the work would “not be delayed” and pointed out that the timetable for examining the evidence in the cases was established before early elections were called.

Media reports Thursday said that Mandelblit had concluded his examination of the evidence in the most severe of the three cases against the prime minister, dubbed by police “Case 4000,” and is leaning toward pursuing an indictment on bribery charges.

Responding to reports that Mandelblit will seek to announce his decision on a possible indictment, pending a hearing, before the national vote, Netanyahu has argued over the past two weeks that such a move would be unfair and akin to “stealing the elections.”

While Netanyahu has stopped short of accusing the attorney general of political bias, other lawmakers in his Likud party have lashed out at Mandelblit, calling the investigations against the prime minister a “politicized witch hunt.”

Hadashot TV news revealed possible signs of rising tensions between Mandelblit and Netanyahu on Thursday, when it quoted an unnamed “source close to the attorney general” accusing the prime minister of instigating the defamation campaign against the attorney general.

“The messaging against the attorney general’s office, and against the attorney general himself, is coming directly from the top. The prime minister is dragging the entire country down. It’s sad and it’s going to hurt us all,” the source was quoted as saying.

The Likud party rushed to deny the accusation, saying in a statement that Netanyahu had nothing to do with “messaging against the attorney general, but only with the demand for a fair process, as any citizen deserves.”

It said the attorney general was under pressure from other parties to indict the prime minister unfairly, and called the indictment hearing process “rushed.”

Navot Tel-Zur at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on February 9, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Attorney Navot Tel-Zur, a member of Netanyahu’s legal team in three corruption probes, asked Mandelblit in a January 14 letter not to move ahead with indictment proceedings during an election campaign, and demanded a meeting to discuss the timing of an announcement in the cases.

In a response Thursday to Tel-Zur from Dr. Gil Limon, a senior aide to Mandelblit, the attorney general’s office stressed that the pace of work on Netanyahu’s cases is unaffected by the election timetable.

Limon pointed out in the letter that State Attorney Shai Nitzan announced on December 19 that the evidence in the case, together with prosecutors’ opinions regarding indictments, had been passed on to the attorney general for a decision. Netanyahu’s coalition announced it would call early elections only five days later, on December 24.

“The process of examining the evidence in the cases under investigation in which the prime minister is a suspect is a professional process, and is being conducted according to accepted procedures in cases that are decided by the attorney general,” Limon wrote. “The work on the cases is advancing in an organized and substantive fashion, in an effort to conclude the work as soon as possible, according to the initial plan, which preceded the calling of early elections.”

Limon also quoted to Tel-Zur from a longstanding directive to prosecutors issued by Mandelblit that states, “As a rule, work on cases involving public figures or [election] candidates should not be delayed if they have reached the state or police prosecution, after an investigation, for a decision on filing indictments.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement live at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem regarding his graft investigations, on January 7, 2019. (Likud/AFP)

“Nevertheless,” the letter continued, “the attorney general has agreed to your request… to meet in order to present in greater detail your client’s view on the question of the date on which the attorney general’s opinion should be publicized in his case.”

Limon clarified that the meeting will deal with the schedule question alone. “No arguments will be presented related to the suspicions, the investigation, the evidence, and so forth,” he wrote, noting that investigators and prosecutors won’t be present at the meeting.

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.

Legal 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. Under law and High Court of Justice precedent, ministers other than the prime minister are required to step down in such cases. There is no clear legal rule regarding the prime minister.

Mandelblit, speaking to Israel’s Channel 10 news on the sidelines of a legal conference earlier this month, said there would “clearly” be no requirement for Netanyahu to step down while a hearing process was in progress, but made no comment as to whether he would make his decision on a possible indictment in the course of the election campaign.

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

Hadashot TV’s legal reporter said earlier this month 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 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.”

In a video posted to his social media accounts earlier this month, Netanyahu compared himself to a man whose arm was cut off because he was found guilty of theft in the first instance but later acquitted on appeal. “Can someone give him back his hand? Can someone give you back the elections?” Netanyahu asked, addressing the Israeli electorate.

Prior to that statement, Hadashot 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 unreasonable for the prime minister to now complain that there was insufficient time to finish dealing with the cases before Israelis go to the polls.

There has been speculation that, should he win the elections, as he is expected to do, Netanyahu would seek to pass the “French law” — a reference to legislation that would provide immunity for a serving prime minister from prosecution.

Shaul Elovitch arrives at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court for a remand hearing in Case 4000, February 26, 2018. (Flash90)

Police recommended last year that Netanyahu be indicted for bribery in all three of the probes, but 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, has asserted 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.

On Thursday, both Channel 13 news and Israel’s Kan public broadcaster reported that Mandelblit has wrapped up his work on Case 4000 and is leaning toward a bribery indictment against Netanyahu in that case.

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