As almost all members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition express support for him despite the Thursday announcement of corruption charges pending a hearing, a lawmaker from his ruling Likud party on Sunday launched a scathing attack on the premier for “attempting to assassinate the public’s trust in law enforcement institutions.”
After Netanyahu attacked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and other legal officials, alleging a politically motivated “witch hunt,” a union representing state prosecutors also castigated the prime minister for “wild personal attacks” on attorneys who he alleges have conspired against him.
In contrast to the near-unanimous support for the premier within current coalition parties, Likud MK Benny Begin on Sunday told Army Radio that he was “deeply troubled” after reading Mandelblit’s 57-page document detailing the suspicions against Netanyahu.
“It was very difficult for me to read,” said Begin, a Likud veteran and the son of former prime minister Menachem Begin. He has decided not to run for a spot in the next Knesset.
“In his speech, the prime minister directly attacked the attorney general, who is legally prohibited from answering him,” Begin charged. “The remarks against the attorney general are very grave and baseless.”
“When Netanyahu says Mandelblit is ‘just flesh and blood,’ he means to say Mandelblit is a doormat succumbing to pressure and cooperating with schemes plotted against him within police and the prosecution,” Begin continued. “I think those are very serious things to tell a high-ranking public official, and they are baseless.”
“Mandelblit didn’t surrender to the former prime minister nor to the current one,” Begin added. “We know he has a backbone and serves the public loyally and carefully, and that he won’t obstruct justice.”
The 75-year-old Begin, who will leave the Knesset after serving as a Likud lawmaker for 18 of the last 30 years, said his last four years have been tough as his party colleagues “made great efforts to make it hard for me to agree and identify with many law bills, offensive proposals in which I frequently found myself to be an opposition within my party.”
The Israel State Attorney Association also criticized Netanyahu on Sunday, publishing a letter that said: “We denounce with disgust the grave personal attacks by the prime minister and other senior officials on attorneys and Israel’s state prosecution.”
Hours after Mandelblit published his decision on Thursday to indict the prime minister for fraud and breach of trust in three cases, and for bribery in one of them, pending a hearing, Netanyahu alleged that state prosecutors Shai Nitzan and Liat Ben-Ari “were the two prosecutors who pushed especially hard to indict me,” and that they did so for political reasons.
The prime minister claimed that Ben-Ari 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. Netanyahu also claimed that Nitzan “scandalously discriminated against right-wingers” according to a 2015 court ruling.
The Justice Ministry on Thursday rejected the criticism and said Netanyahu had cited an irrelevant legal precedent and an overturned opinion in trying to claim the two prosecutors had acted improperly. It 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.
The ministry said the prime minister’s allegation against Nitzan 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.
Netanyahu, in his speech, also alleged that the timing of the indictment announcement showed that Mandelblit shared the leftists’ goal of ousting him. The prime minister said there was “no explanation” for the timing of the announcement, 40 days before the April 9 election day, other than that it was part of a political vendetta designed to oust his right-wing government and install the left. “For the first time in Israel’s history, a [criminal] hearing process was launched a few weeks, a few days before elections,” Netanyahu charged. “Everyone can see that the timing is scandalous, intended to topple the right and help the left rise to power. There’s no other explanation for the insistence on this timing. This is their purpose, to flood the public with ridiculous charges against me without giving me the opportunity to disprove the charges until after the elections,” he said.
“This [criticism of Nitzan and Ben-Ari] crosses all red lines,” wrote the association chair, Orit Korin. “Israel is a democratic state in which criticism, including of the state prosecution, is legitimate and necessary. But there is a big difference between that and wild personal attacks against honest people whose only guiding principles are justice and law.”
“I call for those attacks to be halted,” Korin added, adding that “in addition to personally harming individual prosecutors, they significantly harm the rule of law in Israel.”
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked on Saturday also criticized Netanyahu for going after Nitzan and Ben-Ari.
“I know the attorney general and his team, including Shai [Nitzan] and Liat Ben-Ari,” Shaked told Channel 12. “These are not people who are politically oriented. They make their decisions for the proper reasons.”
She noted, further, that Ben-Ari was the prosecutor of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, a center-left leader who went to jail for corruption in 2016.
“One can obviously issue criticism, certainly in a democratic state. But criticism should relate to the essence, not the personal,” said Shaked. “There should not be personal attacks.”
Though the decision is not final, Mandelblit’s call to charge Netanyahu 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 his re-election campaign.
Netanyahu will have an opportunity to overturn the decision 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 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 breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery.
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.