Attorney general could announce Netanyahu charges months before vote — reports

Contradicting earlier claims, legal officials say Avichai Mandeblit could move to indict PM early enough to not directly influence April elections

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks during a farewell ceremony for outgoing Israel Police chief Roni Alsheikh, on November 29, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks during a farewell ceremony for outgoing Israel Police chief Roni Alsheikh, on November 29, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandeblit could make a decision on whether to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by mid-February, according to television reports on Monday, which contradicted earlier suggestions the top lawyer would wait until after the April 9 elections before making the call.

Legal officials told Channel 10 news and the Kan public broadcaster that, should Mandelblit could reach a decision whether to press criminal charges against the premier in two months’ time, there would be no reason to delay the announcement, the sources said.

That could pave the way for a national election in which Netanyahu would have to battle not only his political rivals, but also possible bribery indictments.

Coalition leaders on Monday announced they would dissolve the government and go to the polls in four months’ time.

The announcement came as Mandelblit began reviewing evidence in three probes, in which police have recommended criminal charges against the premier. Were Mandelblit to decide to indict Netanyahu, a further time-consuming process would begin. The prime minister would be granted a hearing to seek to change the decision. The attorney general would then have to weigh the arguments again, before deciding on whether to proceed with indictments.

Earlier on Monday, law enforcement officials indicated that Mandelblit would wait until after elections before announcing whether to indict Netanyahu in a raft of criminal cases.

The legal officials, who spoke to Hebrew media on condition on anonymity, said Mandelblit does not want to be perceived as trying to influence the outcome of the vote. As a result, the attorney general’s ruling on whether to press charges against the prime minister will likely be delayed until after the national polls, according to Channel 10.

The Justice Ministry denied the reports, saying Mandeblit’s “orderly and professional” review of the Netanyahu investigations would continue apace, though no final date was set for a decision.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset on December 24, 2018, confirming early elections. At his side is coalition chief David (Dudi) Amsalem (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Mandelblit has not said how long it will take to review the materials, but reports before elections were called had indicated he was aiming to announce a decision on the matter by mid-April at latest.

“The work on the investigation files related to the prime minister is proceeding as planned,” the ministry said Monday. “This is an orderly and professional process that is independent of political events.”

The ministry also referred to its internal guidelines on prosecuting public officials who are up for reelection, which generally advises prosecutors to continue their legal proceedings — but operate with caution.

“As a rule, there is no room to delay dealing with cases against public officials or candidates who have previously been subject to investigation or police complaint, for the purpose of deciding on whether to lodge an indictment,” the guidelines said. “However, the treatment [of the cases] will take into consideration the necessary caution, and, as needed, the matter will be brought to the attorney general or state prosecutor [for a decision.]”

The Justice Ministry said reports the attorney general would delay his decision are “speculative, due to the fact that the date on which he will finish working on the cases is still unknown.”

From the opposition, Meretz party leader Tamar Zandberg told Hadashot news that Mandelblit should work around the clock and announce a decision on the Netanyahu cases before the elections.

Mandelblit, Netanyahu’s former cabinet secretary, began reviewing the 800-page case file this week, after years of police investigations and a review by the state prosecutor.

Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Avichai Mandelblit at a cabinet meeting on January 4, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)

State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan said last week he was wrapping up recommendations on the three cases against Netanyahu for Mandelblit, which reportedly include recommendations to indict the premier on bribery charges over an affair in which he is accused of kicking back regulatory favors in exchange for positive media coverage.

Police have recommended his indictment in three different probes.Of the cases Netanyahu is suspected of illegal activity in, the one known as Case 4000 is considered by the State Prosecutor’s Office to be the most serious, according to Israeli television reports.

In that case, 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.

The prosecutor’s office last week told Mandeblit the allegations constituted “a clear case of bribery,” according to Israel’s Hadashot TV news. Recommendations for bribery charges were also made in the cases known as 1000 and 2000, though those were seen as less clear-cut, according to the report.

Police investigators arrive at the entrance to the Prime Minister Residence in Jerusalem on August 17, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving benefits worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors, including Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, in exchange for assistance on various issues.

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 a rival daily newspaper, the Sheldon Adelson-backed freebie Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

According to Hadashot, the attorney general’s office aimed to reach a decision on whether to press charges in the next few months, and certainly “well before Passover” which begins in mid-April. On Thursday, Mandelblit said that “we will work quickly, but not at the expense of the investigation. We will not pursue any one person, only justice.”

“I accompanied the process closely. The investigation was carried out with determination and professionalism,” Mandelblit said.

Netanyahu, who has been in office since 2009, has denied wrongdoing and portrayed the cases as a witch hunt by the media, the law enforcement community and others.

Netanyahu is not required to step down if indicted — only if he is convicted with all appeals exhausted — and polls have indicated his Likud party would remain the largest in parliament after new elections.

AFP contributed to this report.

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