2019 elections

Legal officials said to slam PM over reported threat against attorney general

Comments initially attributed to Netanyahu warned that Avichai Mandelblit would be targeted by ‘merciless attack’ if he indicts premier ahead of April elections

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a conference in Jerusalem on September 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a conference in Jerusalem on September 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Law enforcement officials reportedly hit back Thursday against threatening comments attributed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warning of a “merciless” attack on the attorney general if he announces an indictment against the premier in three corruption cases before the April 9 elections.

The threat came in a report Thursday in the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom. According to the report, a senior Likud source warned earlier this week that if a decision to indict Netanyahu is made before the elections, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit “will become the target of a merciless attack” by party officials.

Some versions of the same story published by Israel Hayom attributed the comments not to a senior Likud source but to Netanyahu himself.

“There will be no holds barred and no effort to safeguard his honor. The entire Likud campaign will be directed against him,” the paper quoted the Likud source as warning Mandelblit.

The Likud party responded to the report on Thursday by denying Netanyahu had made the statements, saying, “Prime Minister Netanyahu has not spoken to anyone about this.”

“No one in Likud is threatening the attorney general,” the statement declared, charging instead that “threats and pressures to indict Netanyahu at any cost and by any means come daily from the left and the media.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 5, 2015. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

On Thursday evening, law enforcement officials speaking anonymously to the Hebrew-language press called on Netanyahu to publicly renounce the statements and declare that such sentiments are unacceptable in political discourse.

“A red line was crossed today. We knew it would come but not in the form of a threat like this,” a source was quoted in Hebrew-speaking media as saying.

“The prime minister is suspected of serious criminal offenses and he allows himself or someone on his behalf to threaten the attorney general?” asked one official.

“There is no doubt that Netanyahu is trying to convey a message to Mandelblit here… The prime minister must make it clear that neither he nor any of his associates stand behind such a statement, and the sooner the better. It is inconceivable that in a democratic state a prime minister would threaten an attorney general.”

According to Israel Hayom, the comments came during a conversation between the prime minister and his inner circle in the run-up to Wednesday’s Knesset vote to dissolve the parliament and go to elections. In that conversation, Netanyahu reportedly also said he believed Mandelblit “won’t dare” to announce charges against him before the national ballot.

He also said he does not intend to resign from office if indicted — whether before or after the upcoming election — not even if his case goes to a criminal trial.

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

A prime minister is only required to resign after being convicted of a crime that carries moral turpitude, after exhausting all available appeals.

In the 1993 corruption case of Shas politician Aryeh Deri (who was then, and is again now, interior minister), then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin did not want to oust him even after an indictment was filed by the attorney general in order to ensure his coalition wasn’t destabilized. But the High Court of Justice ordered the minister to leave his post after he was indicted, establishing the principle as a rule.

The same standard, also applied over the years to politicians under investigation like Tzachi Hanegbi and Avigdor Liberman, does not apply to a prime minister, whose position is more secure as it is set in Israel’s Basic Laws. To force a resignation under indictment, the court would have to extend its previous ruling to include the premier.

“There’s no similar determination with regard to the prime minister, and it can be argued both ways whether it applies to the prime minister,” Israeli criminal and constitutional law expert Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer told The Times of Israel this week, adding that Netanyahu would likely challenge a decision by the court for him to step down.

This week’s announcement that elections will be held in April — seven months earlier than originally scheduled — came as Mandelblit began reviewing the criminal cases against Netanyahu. Reports before the announcement of early elections suggested he intended to make a decision on whether to indict the prime minister by mid-April.

Some analysts argue Netanyahu’s timing for calling elections is linked to his graft investigations. The prime minister, they argue, is gunning to secure reelection before an indictment is handed down, under the assumption that the attorney general would shy away from pressing charges against Israel’s longtime leader in the throes of an election campaign.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at a Plenary Hall session for a vote on a bill to dissolve parliament, at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 26, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking to Army Radio in response to the Israel Hayom report, Communications Minister Hanegbi, considered a close associate of Netanyahu, echoed some of the prime minister’s reported sentiments, stressing there was no need for him to step down after an indictment.

“The prime minister is today at the height of his power and standing. The legal requirement to resign only comes after a conviction,” Hanegbi said.

“A government bureaucrat cannot use [an indictment] to reverse the decision of the people,” he added, in a clear swipe at Mandelblit.

Initial reports after Monday’s announcement that elections would be held in April, citing shadowy unnamed legal officials, said Mandelblit would likely delay any announcement to avoid the suggestion he was intervening in Israel’s political process. Later reports, however, also quoting anonymous officials, said he could make a decision by February.

Likud sources also told Israel Hayom that Netanyahu planned to condition entry into his coalition after the election — assuming he wins on April 9 — on parties promising to remain in the government even if he is indicted at a later date. The ultra-Orthodox, Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu parties are reportedly seen by Likud as certain to make such a promise, while new parties headed by Benny Gantz and Orli Levy-Abekasis, Kulanu, Yesh Atid, and Zionist Union would all be “possible options for coalition partners” if they make similar declarations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in the Knesset plenum for a vote on a bill to dissolve parliament, in Jerusalem on December 26, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon and Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid have both said publicly on a number of occasions that Netanyahu cannot continue to lead the country if he is charged.

Police have recommended Netanyahu be indicted in each of the three probes against him. Of the cases, the one known as Case 4000 is considered by the State Prosecutor’s Office to be the most serious, according to 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 Mandelblit the allegations constituted “a clear case of bribery,” according to 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.

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, Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Netanyahu, who has been in office since 2009, has denied wrongdoing and portrays the cases as part of a conspiracy against him encompassing the left, the media and law enforcement officials.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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