Attorney general to decide ‘in days’ on PM’s bid to delay indictment decision

Attorney general to decide ‘in days’ on PM’s bid to delay indictment decision

Avichai Mandelblit ‘listened attentively’ in three-hour meeting to arguments from Netanyahu’s lawyers calling for postponement of conclusions on graft cases until after elections

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Screen capture of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaking with Hadashot TV news, in footage broadcast on January 18, 2019. (Hadashot news)
Screen capture of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaking with Hadashot TV news, in footage broadcast on January 18, 2019. (Hadashot news)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will make a decision “in the coming days,” on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to delay the announcement of a possible indictment against him, the Justice Ministry said Monday, after a three-hour meeting between state attorneys and the premier’s legal team.

Netanyahu’s defense lawyers met with Mandelblit to discuss the attorney general’s deliberations on the bribery cases involving the prime minister, and were seeking to postpone the publication of his conclusions and the possible summoning of Netanyahu to a pre-indictment hearing until after the upcoming April 9 elections.

The meeting took place at Mandelblit’s office, with State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan but without a team of lawyers accompanying the case led by Liat Ben Ari, head of the State Prosecution’s Tax and Finance Department.

Netanyahu’s lawyers “presented their arguments at length on the date of publication of the attorney general’s decision in the investigations regarding the prime minister,” Mandelblit’s office said in a statement.

Lawyers for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, (from left) Tal Shapira, Navot Tel Zur and Amit Hadad, after meeting with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on January 21, 2019 (Mivzak news screenshot)

“The arguments were listened to attentively, and will be considered as is customary. The attorney general will formulate his position in the coming days and it will be delivered to the defense attorneys as soon as possible,” the statement added.

Though Mandelblit agreed to meet with the defense team at their urging, he is expected to reject their request.

Following the meeting, Netanyahu’s legal team, which on Monday was expanded to include retired judges Oded Mudrik and Sefi Alon, said it was “working to ensure a fair playing field for the prime minister, who is facing elections.”

Netanyahu’s lawyers were told ahead of time that the meeting would not deal with any other issues related to the case, such as the investigation process or materials in possession of the prosecution, a letter last week from Mandelblit’s office said.

Media reports last week 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.

Mandelblit has indicated that he would not delay an announcement of charges, saying that the fact that Israel is holding early elections “is none of my business… It’s not something that affects me.”

“I need to do my work as quickly as possible, although of course without compromising thoroughness and professionalism,” he said in a recent interview with Channel 12 news.

Responding to reports that Mandelblit will 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.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit in Jerusalem on December 27, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

His lawyers have pushed for a postponement, including in a letter last week from Navot Tel-Zur, a member of Netanyahu’s legal team, that asked Mandelblit not to move ahead with indictment proceedings during an election campaign, and demanded the meeting to discuss the timing of an announcement in the cases.

Netanyahu has stopped short of directly accusing the attorney general of political bias, but has attacked Mandelbit regarding an “unprecedented” brief interview the AG gave at the weekend to Hadashot TV news, and has complained that he has been prevented from confronting his accusers. Other lawmakers in his Likud party have lashed out directly at Mandelblit. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and has blamed the investigations against him on a”witch hunt” by the left, the media and the police, in turn relentlessly pressuring Mandelblit to prosecute him.

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 after a formal, final indictment was filed at the completion of a 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.

In Case 4000, reportedly the most serious of three cases against Netanyahu, he 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.

Case 2000 involves a similar suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes.

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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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