Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday accused police and state prosecutors of an “attempted coup” against him, shortly after Israel’s attorney general announced he would be charged with criminal wrongdoing in three separate cases against him, including bribery in the far-reaching Bezeq corruption probe.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision, announced earlier Thursday, marked the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister faces criminal charges, casting a heavy shadow over Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, and his ongoing attempts to remain in power.
“I’ve given my life for this country, I fought for this country, was wounded for this country,” an emotional Netanyahu said in televised remarks Thursday night.
“I deeply respect the justice system in Israel. But you have to be blind not to see that something bad is happening to police investigators and the prosecution. We’re seeing an attempted coup by the police with false accusations” against him, he accused.
Responding to the prime minister’s speech, Blue and White chief Benny Gantz said Netanyahu “proved he must leave his position and focus on his legal affairs.” He expressed full support for the justice system and said the evening’s main takeaway was “no coup,” but rather a case of Netanyahu “entrenching” himself in power.
Netanyahu listed a litany of complaints about the conduct of the investigation, charging: “These facts emphasize how much this process is tainted. It’s meant to topple a right-wing prime minister, me. I, who unlike the left and the slanted media, want to institute a free market, not only in the economy but also a free market of ideas, who wants to see a strong country, not a weak, shrunken, bowed country.”
The “tainted investigation process, including inventing new crimes, has reached its apex today. It horrifies not only me, but masses of citizens in Israel, and not only on the right… This tainted process raises questions among the public about the police’s investigations and the prosecution. The public has lost trust in these institutions. It’s a process that’s taken place over many years. This is selective enforcement on steroids. It’s enforcement just for me.”
He called to establish an independent commission to investigate the conduct of investigators in his cases.
“It’s time to investigate the investigators, to investigate the prosecution that approves these tainted investigations. I respect the police, I respect the prosecutors. There are hundreds of them. But we have to understand that they’re not above criticism. This isn’t just about transparency, it’s about accountability.”
He urged Israelis “to demand: investigate the investigators.”
He brushed off calls for him to resign so he can deal with his legal troubles privately.
“My sense of justice burns within me. I cannot believe that the country I fought for and was wounded for, that I’ve brought to such achievements, that in this country, in its democracy, there will be this kind of tainted justice, of selective enforcement. I won’t let the lie win. I will continue to lead this country with devotion. For this country, for the rule of law, for justice, we have to do one thing: to finally investigate the investigators.”
According to the full indictment released by the Justice Ministry Thursday, Netanyahu will be charged with fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000.
Mandelblit addressed the press in his office in the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem at 7:30 p.m. to formally announce the charges.
He called the decision “a difficult and sad day” and said his ruling was made “with a heavy heart but also without hesitation.
“Law enforcement isn’t optional. It’s not a question of politics. It’s a duty incumbent upon us…. We were not swayed by slander from all sides, and acted only to enforce the law,” he said, referring to criticism from Netanyahu supporters who have accused prosecutors of conducting a witch hunt to unseat the prime minister.
He called the accusations “dangerous” and said they were “playing with fire. It must stop. I call on everyone, and first and foremost the leaders of the state, you must distance yourself from discourse that threatens law enforcement officials. We’re not infallible or above criticism. But we acted without fear or prejudice, for the rule of law.”
In October, prosecutors and the prime minister’s legal team held several days of hearings in which Netanyahu’s attorneys sought to refute the allegations against him. The state prosecution said the premier’s defense had not managed to refute the charges.
“The attorney general’s decision on the prime minister was made after a thorough and deep examination of the numerous claims raised by the prime minister’s lawyers during the four days of the hearing in early October 2019,” the state prosecution statement said. “All claims were examined in depth as part of a regular work process deployed over many hours in which the State Attorney’s Office submitted in-depth reviews of hundreds of pages, relating to the claims raised at the hearing,” the state prosecution statement said.
“After all claims were reviewed, it was found that there were no claims that arose at the hearing to change the offenses attributed to the prime minister… However, some of the claims have led to changes in the indictment, even if not a change in the offense clauses themselves,” the statement added.
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 intended to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust — the latter being 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 the circulation of a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth, Mandelblit said he would seek to charge the premier with fraud and 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 the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. In that case Mandelblit announced he intends to charge Netanyahu and Elovitch with bribery.
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 the formal indictment is filed. 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 could, however, take months before formal charges are filed, as Netanyahu is expected to ask the Knesset for parliamentary immunity. The Knesset House Committee and plenum would have to rule on Netanyahu’s immunity, but the committee does not currently have any members, as no coalition agreement has yet been signed in the 22nd Knesset dividing up committee seats between the parliament’s factions.
Only once a new coalition is formed — either over the next several weeks or, failing that, after the next round of elections slated for March — can a Knesset House Committee take up the question.
Even if Netanyahu’s immunity request is rejected, it could take until May or June for the formal decision to be made. A formal indictment could still be more than seven months away.
Ehud Olmert, the country’s first former premier to serve prison time, stepped down from office in 2008 during the investigation into him, but before the intention to file charges was announced. He served 16 months in prison on corruption offenses and was released in July 2017.