The Justice Ministry on Thursday night rejected claims by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the top prosecutor handling his corruption investigations had a history of unfairly singling out right-wing politicians.
State Attorney Shai Nitzan and Tel Aviv state prosecution head of taxation and economic crimes Liat Ben-Ari, the chief prosecutor in Netanyahu’s cases, “were the two prosecutors who pushed especially hard to indict me,” Netanyahu charged in a televised statement to the press on Thursday evening, after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit formally announced his intention to indict the premier, pending a hearing.
Netanyahu accused both top prosecutors of seeking to harm him for political reasons.
The Justice Ministry issued a statement calling Netanyahu’s comments “baseless and misleading.”
The prime minister claimed that Ben-Ari had halted an investigation into then-Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni ahead of January 2013 Knesset elections by arguing it would intervene in the electoral process.
But the ministry said the case against Kadima did not involve Livni but rather the party’s treasurer and the faction’s management of its finances.
It said the decision not to question political figures in the case ahead of the 2013 elections was made by the top investigating officer in the Israel Police, not by Ben-Ari, partly due to the possible effect on the election, and partly because the investigation was still secret at the time.
“That case bears no comparison to the prime minister’s cases, in which the investigations had already been completed before the government’s decision to go to early elections,” the ministry said.
Netanyahu had also claimed that Nitzan “scandalously discriminated against right-wingers” according to a 2015 court ruling.
The ministry said the prime minister’s allegation was based on a since-overturned opinion given by a magistrate’s court judge in a 2015 case against a man who had made death threats against the state attorney.
While the man was convicted, Judge Nava Bechor of the Kfar Saba Magistrate’s Court had determined that Nitzan indeed had a history of discriminating against right-wingers.
The state appealed that section of the verdict in district court and it was subsequently struck down.
“The prime minister therefore quoted a determination from a mistaken ruling of a magistrate’s court that was subsequently canceled by a district court,” the ministry said Thursday night.
Netanyahu had cited “media reports” as sources for his accusation, saying, “I’m learning about this from leaks, like you.”
His televised address came hours after Mandelblit announced his intention to charge the prime minister in three corruption cases, pending a hearing. Netanyahu faces charges of fraud, breach of trust and, in one case, bribery.
Netanyahu insisted that Mandelblit’s announcement to indict him came only because he had caved to “inhuman pressure” from the media and the left-wing.
In response to Netanyahu’s comments, a senior legal official quoted by the Ynet news website dismissed those claims as “embarrassing.”
“These are baseless accusations,” the official said. “Unfounded excuses.”
Mandelblit’s decision is not final. Netanyahu will have an opportunity to overturn it in a hearing expected to take place in the months following Election Day on April 9. The process could take up to a year.
The decision marks the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister has been told he faces criminal charges, and casts a heavy shadow over Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.