Top Israeli legal officials are pushing back against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and those of his supporters who have criticized the state prosecution’s handling of the corruption cases against him, warning of efforts to undermine public faith in the rule of law.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit complained in a speech on Thursday about irresponsible attempts to harm the rule of law of Israel and undermine public trust in the law enforcement hierarchies. State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan said Friday that a top Likud MP’s recent tweet protesting that millions of Israelis would “not accept” an indictment of Netanyahu was “super-problematic.” And state legal officials were quoted anonymously on Friday night’s Israeli TV broadcasts warning that Netanyahu’s political allies were working to delegitimize the state prosecution.
In some of his most combative comments to date on the corruption probes against him, Netanyahu lashed out Thursday at “the left” and at “the media,” claiming they were coordinating a “thuggish” campaign to pressure Mandelblit to announce an indictment against him in the near future in order to “steal” the April 9 elections. Netanyahu also reiterated a recent theme of his that it would be democratically unacceptable for Mandelblit to announce his intention to indict, pending the hearing to which Netanyahu would be entitled, since the hearing process is a lengthy one that could not possibly be concluded before election day.
“For years now, left-wing protesters and the media have leveled thuggish, inhumane pressure at the attorney general to get him to file an indictment against me at any cost — even when there’s nothing there,” the prime minister said. “This pressure is now reaching a climax. They’re trying to force the attorney general to brazenly intervene in the elections by ordering me to a hearing, despite knowing that it won’t be possible to conclude the hearing process by election day. It’s unconscionable to start a hearing process before elections that can’t be concluded by the elections.”
He had warned last week: “Imagine what happens if you oust a prime minister before the end of the hearing process, and at the end of the hearing it is decided to close the case. That would be absurd, and a terrible blow to democracy.”
Mandelblit, speaking to Israel’s Channel 10 news on the sidelines of a legal conference Thursday, said there would “clearly” be no requirement for Netanyahu to step down while a hearing process was in process, but made no comment as whether he would make his decision on a possible indictment in the course of the election campaign. When it was suggested to him that he could determine who Israel’s next prime minister would be, Mandelblit said he had “no idea” about that and that such thoughts did not go through his head.
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. Judicial 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.
Mandelblit told the conference Thursday that he and his team of investigators and prosecutors were immune to the political rhetoric swirling around the case, but also condemned some of it.
“All this ambient noise is just irrelevant. I’ve said for a long time… people can’t disturb our work, they won’t change anything, they can’t change anything. We’re working professionally — only the evidence will have a say,” Mandelblit told the conference. “We’re trying to work as quickly as possible, that’s my responsibility and obligation, but under no circumstances at the cost of professionalism. Professionalism always comes before anything else.”
Nitzan, who is reported to have completed his work on the three cases concerning the prime minister and to have recommended indicting Netanyahu in all of them, on Friday castigated comments made recently by Netanyahu’s coalition chief David Amsalem, who wrote in a tweet two weeks ago that the prime minister was plainly being framed and that if he was indicted “millions of people won’t accept this.”
Said Nitzan, “That’s a super-problematic thing to say.”
כל בוקר אני מתעורר ומקווה שמישהו יעצור את הטירוף הזה ויחזיר את המדינה לשפיות. כאזרח המדינה ולא כיו"ר הקואליציה, אני מבין שתופרים כאן תיקים לראש הממשלה ואי אפשר להשלים עם זה. יש גם יום אחרי ואם מישהו יחליט להעמיד לדין ראש ממשלה על תיקים הזויים כאלה, מיליוני אנשים לא יקבלו את זה. pic.twitter.com/wDxvwb4OqY
— דודי אמסלם ???????? (@dudiamsalem) December 21, 2018
In his own reference to Amsalem’s comments and other such criticisms, Mandelblit said Thursday that, “recently, unfounded claims have been made regarding the law enforcement hierarchies” seeking to “undermine the public’s trust in the professionalism and impartiality of our decisions” with assertions “that millions of people won’t accept this or that decision. Such utterances seek to harm the deepest foundations of the rule of law. They are irresponsible.”
Unnamed state law enforcement officials told Channel 10 Friday that Netanyahu’s political supporters were working to delegitimize the state prosecution, and that the prime minister could stop them doing so but was choosing not to. The officials condemned the “unbelievable” developments of the past two weeks, since it became clear that Mandelblit might indict Netanyahu, noting that the “grave comments by senior politicians are getting worse and worse.”
“Netanyahu could put a stop to this but apparently doesn’t want to,” they added. “Quite the reverse: He evidently believes this serves his interests.”
“We are being delegitimized; this is very worrying,” the unnamed officials added. “It is inconceivable that there be threats to destroy the democratic system. Public faith in the legal system is being destroyed. It’s appalling… It’s no surprise that the attorney general and the state prosecutor have spoken out several times in recent weeks about it.
Hadashot TV’s legal reporter said Friday 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 last week 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.”
Hadashot Friday 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 hardly reasonable for the prime minister to now complain that there was insufficient time to finish dealing with the case before Israelis go to the polls.
Hadashot speculated that, should he win the elections, as he is expected to do, Netanyahu would seek to pass “the French law” — a reference to potential legislation that would provide immunity for a serving prime minister from prosecution.
On Thursday, the former state prosecutor Moshe Lador, who oversaw the prosecution of former president Moshe Katsav and ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert, both of whom went to jail, told Israel Radio that Mandelblit must make a decision on the three corruption cases by the end of February, “so the public can digest and internalize its meaning” before election day.
Lador insisted Israelis had the right to learn whether the evidence against Netanyahu was serious before voting. “The timing is unavoidable. There’s no other choice because of the elections,” he said.
In a Twitter post, Likud alleged in response that “Moshe Lador has been orchestrating a campaign of aggressive pressure on the attorney general for some time to get him to file an indictment against Prime Minister Netanyahu at any cost, even though there’s nothing there.”
The rhetorical skirmishes have picked up steam amid unconfirmed press reports that Mandelblit is nearing the end of his examination of the evidence in Netanyahu’s graft cases. Channel 10 news reported on Wednesday that Mandelblit would be ready to make a decision on whether to seek an indictment by February.
Police have recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for bribery in all three of the probes. 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, asserted Friday 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.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing, and has claimed the investigations are part of a political vendetta and witch-hunt, aimed to oust him, involving the political left, the media and the police. He declined to grant Roni Alsheich, Israel’s most recent police chief who oversaw the investigations against him, a customary fourth year in office. Like former cabinet secretary Mandelblit, Alsheich was a Netanyahu appointee.