Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyers presented a legal opinion from five American professors, including Alan Dershowitz, during pre-indictment hearings this week arguing that investigating the swaying of media coverage as a criminal offense constitutes a danger to democracy.
Netanyahu’s alleged criminal interactions with prominent owners of Israeli media outlets are at the heart of the most serious of the cases against him, Case 4000, in which he faces a possible bribery charge, and feature in the two other cases, Cases 1000 and 2000, as well.
One of the professors asked for an audience with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who turned down the request but said he would read the US professors’ legal opinion himself, Channel 12 news reported Friday.
The network did not name the professor who sought to meet with Mandelblit nor any of the other figures who submitted the legal opinion besides Dershowitz, a prominent law professor and champion of Israel.
It also did not specify on what grounds the professors argued that prosecuting leaders for seeking to be portrayed in a positive light endangers democracy. In Case 4000, Netanyahu is alleged to have secured improved coverage from the Walla website in a quid pro quo arrangement in which he approved business arrangements of immense financial benefit to Walla’s owner Shaul Elovitch, the then majority shareholder in Israel’s Bezeq telecommunications giant.
Dershowitz has previously stated that politicians routinely negotiate with news outlets on coverage, telling Army Radio last year that “interfering in the relationship between media and the government poses a tremendous danger to free speech.”
Netanyahu’s lawyers presented arguments in his defense in Case 4000 at two days of hearings this week with Mandelblit and other top prosecutors.
Channel 12 reported that, defying expectations, Netanyahu’s attorneys presented strong arguments, that prosecutors expected to have to do significant work after the hearings though they would not need to order further investigation, and that parts of the prosecution’s “thesis” on the case might need to be “reexamined.” There was a possibility that the timetable by which the state prosecution aimed to reach a final decision on whether to press charges could change, despite denials by the prosecution, the report said.
Officials in the State Prosecutor’s Office told Channel 13, by contrast, that Netanyahu’s lawyers had not convinced them there was no bribery case to answer in Case 4000.
Neither TV station quoted named sources for their reports on what had played out at the hearing on Wednesday and Thursday. A lawyer for Netanyahu said on both days he was convinced that new evidence being presented on behalf of the prime minister would leave state prosecutors with no option but to close all the cases.
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in the three cases, as well as a bribery charge in Case 4000.
That case concerns suspicions that Netanyahu pushed regulatory decisions financially benefiting Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications group, in return for ongoing positive coverage from Bezeq’s Walla news site.
In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of agreeing with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth. The agreement was never implemented.
Case 1000 involves suspicions that Netanyahu received tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts from wealthy benefactors, notably Arnon Milchan and James Packer, in exchange for assistance on various issues.
According to a Channel 13 report Friday, Netanyahu in his previous questioning on Case 1000, acknowledged to investigators he received gifts from Milchan and Packer, but stated he wasn’t aware of the large quantities of champagne sent for his wife.
Netanyahu reportedly said that Milchan was a close friend of his and that the two had become close while he was out of politics and did not expect to return to political life. He described their relationship as “like brothers.”
Regarding the deliveries of champagne to his house, Netanyahu reportedly told investigators: “My wife and I are two different people. I don’t know about these amounts [of champagne]. I don’t believe there’s anything like that here. I know one thing, when we would go to Arnon’s, the champagne would flow freely there. I don’t happen to like champagne. I don’t drink but everyone would drink copious amounts there.”
The prosecutor asked Netanyahu: “Milchan said that you are a hedonistic couple and he’s disgusted by you,” and that Milchan said the Netanyahus had “constant demands.”
Netanyahu replied: “That amazes and disappoints me. It’s hard for me to believe that he said that. I didn’t come to him with demands. Most of the cigars were given during our meetings.”
In a document from February laying out the allegations against Netanyahu, Mandelblit said the champagne was requested by Sara Netanyahu and that the prime minister was aware of the “significant amounts” of bubbly that was delivered.
The Friday TV reports came after the second day of the hearing process in the criminal cases against Netanyahu ended Thursday night following long hours of discussion, with one of the prime minister’s attorneys continuing to express confidence that the charges against the premier would be withdrawn.
“We continued to present our arguments in Case 4000 today,” attorney Amit Hadad told reporters, emerging from the 11-hour-long session. “The arguments were compelling and were closely listened to [by the state prosecution].”
He repeated his refrain from the previous day that “at the end of the hearing there will be no choice but to close the cases.”
Haaretz reported that despite plans to complete discussions on Case 4000 on Thursday, they were expected to continue into Sunday. Sunday and Monday had originally been planned to focus on Cases 1000 and 2000.
Channel 12 on Friday said that the hearing process would not be extended, however, and would end as scheduled before Yom Kippur, which begins on Tuesday evening.
Netanyahu did not accompany his lawyers to the hearing. On Thursday he spoke at the the swearing-in ceremony for the 22nd Knesset, the future of which is already in doubt amid a political deadlock and no clear path for him to form a government. The ongoing logjam brought an unprecedented two rounds of elections within five months and threatens to lead to a third.
Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, has repeatedly claimed that the legal cases against him are the result of a witch hunt designed to oust him from power involving the media, the political opposition, the police and the state prosecution.
While Netanyahu has questioned the legitimacy of the decision-making process in the justice system, and singled out State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan and the lead prosecutor handling the case, Liat Ben-Ari, as pushing a hard line against him, his lawyer Ran Caspi singled out the pair for praise on Wednesday, saying: “I have complete, unreserved faith not only in Israel’s judicial system, but also in those at the head of law enforcement, and first and foremost Mr. Shai Nitzan, the state prosecutor, and Ms. Liat Ben-Ari, the deputy state prosecutor.”