Likud lawmaker launches exoneration campaign for Netanyahu

After clear election win, MK Miki Zohar urges AG to ‘come to his senses’ and abandon plans to prosecute PM, since ‘the people are sovereign’ and have voted to keep the PM in power

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during an election campaign tour in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, April 8, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during an election campaign tour in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, April 8, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A lawmaker in Likud party moved on Wednesday to launch an exoneration campaign for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the three corruption cases against him.

The ruling party’s dramatic election victory Tuesday meant that prosecutors should reconsider pursuing criminal charges against Netanyahu, Likud MK Miki Zohar said in a blitz of media interviews, arguing that indicting a victorious Netanyahu would amount to subverting the public will.

“The people decided that the cases [against Netanyahu] aren’t criminal in nature,” Zohar argued in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster Wednesday morning.

He insisted that the standards by which Netanyahu was being judged in the investigations into cases 1000, 2000 and 4000 were set especially high. Netanyahu is facing fraud and breach of trust charges in all three cases, and bribery in Case 4000, pending a hearing.

“The public thinks that there is a line that the courts and law enforcement should not cross — that’s the line the prime minister was on,” he said. “You can’t cross this line and get to the point where you’re arguing that a politician speaking with the media committed a criminal act,” he said, referring to the alleged illicit dealings between Netanyahu and key media owners at the heart of cases 2000 and 4000.

Likud MK Miki Zohar at an Interior Affairs Committee meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 20, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The people, he added, “are the sovereign.”

Last month, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing, in the three cases. The prime minister denies all the allegations.

Speculation has swirled that Netanyahu may use his newfound political strength to advance legislation that would immunize him from prosecution as long as he remains prime minister. He is reported to be considering conditioning entry to his new government on a potential coalition party’s support for the so-called “French law” sheltering a sitting prime minister from prosecution. Netanyahu has publicly given mixed signals about whether he will seek such legislation.

In a separate interview with the Walla news site, Zohar urged that Mandelblit “come to his senses” and drop the planned indictments against the PM.

“We’re seeing the lie” — of the corruption allegations against Netanyahu — “being sustained only by law enforcement authorities,” Zohar charged.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks during a conference at the national library in Jerusalem on June 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“I hope the attorney general comes to his senses and sees the public’s decision [on election day] and what it thinks about Netanyahu,” he said.

The comments by Zohar — the first of what will likely be many Likud lawmakers seeking to pressure law enforcement officials to enable Netanyahu to continue to lead the country — came as Mandelblit prepared to release evidence in the three probes to Netanyahu’s attorneys.

Mandelblit had agreed to hold off on releasing the evidence until after election day in response to the argument by Netanyahu’s lawyers that it would almost certainly be leaked to the press, hurting the prime minister’s election chances unfairly when he had not yet had his day in court.

Netanyahu will face a hearing ahead of possible indictments in the three cases in the coming three months.

In 2017, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked expressed cautious support for a version of a law modeled on one in France offering a sitting head of government freedom from prosecution, after it was pushed forward by Likud MK David Bitan, who is himself under investigation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, walks through the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on April 8, 2019, a day ahead of Israel’s parliamentary elections. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

MK Bezalel Smotrich, number two in the new Union of Right-Wing Parties, proposed a bill in early March that would give lawmakers increased powers to block charges against sitting Knesset members, including the prime minister.

Netanyahu has said he has hitherto rejected such efforts to protect him through legislation, telling Channel 12 in late March that he would be saved from prosecution by “the facts themselves.”

“Everything will be thrown out in the hearing. I still haven’t said a word in my defense, a single word … It’s all poppycock,” he said.

While a sitting Israeli prime minister has never been this close to indictment before, Netanyahu is not obligated to resign at this stage. During his hearing, Netanyahu can plead his case before formal charges are filed.

Furthermore, according to an existing law, Knesset members can be granted immunity if a majority of lawmakers are convinced the defendant has been treated unfairly and the charges are based on discrimination or a bad-faith effort.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The Knesset can give him immunity if it is persuaded that he is the victim of a vendetta — as he believes is the case,” jurist Mordechai Kremnitzer told The Times of Israel late last year.

The prime minister has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and claims the investigations are part of efforts by the media and Israeli left to remove him from power, with the support of a dishonest police investigating team overseen by a “weak” attorney general.

In Case 1000, involving accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for favors, Mandelblit said he intends to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust.

In Case 2000, involving accusations Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth, Mandelblit will seek to also charge the premier with fraud and breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery.

Shaul Elovitch arrives at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court for a remand hearing in Case 4000, February 26, 2018. (Flash90)

In Case 4000, widely seen as the most serious against the premier, Netanyahu is accused of having advanced regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, in exchange for positive coverage from its Walla news site. In that case, Mandelblit announced he intends to charge both Netanyahu and Elovitch with bribery.

New suspicions have also arisen regarding a possible conflict of interest related to unreported business dealings possibly tied to a German shipbuilder from which Israel buys submarines. The purchases have been investigated in the so-called Case 3000, which snared several of Netanyahu’s close associates but not the prime minister.

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