High Court rejects Likud petition to prevent AG announcing Netanyahu indictment

Mandelblit reportedly plans to charge PM with bribery in one probe, breach of trust in two others; charges against Sara Netanyahu said dropped

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)
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 High Court of Justice on Thursday afternoon rejected a petition by the Likud party to block the expected announcement on whether to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, subject to a hearing, in three criminal cases against him.

The court thus paved the way for Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to publicize his decision.

In a dramatic last-ditch attempt to prevent the publication of criminal charges against Netanyahu before the April elections, Likud urged the court to stop the announcement.

According to the ruling party’s chief legal adviser, Avi Halevy, allowing Mandelblit to announce his decision so close to the elections would be an “unprecedented interference” in the democratic process.

“It is possible that as a result of the publication of the attorney general’s decision, parties in the right-wing bloc that support the prime minister will receive fewer seats in the Knesset,” the petition filed with the High Court of Justice read. “This [indictment] decision may turn 180 degrees as a result of the hearing that will take place only after the elections, but by then it will be too late for the parties that lost representation in the Knesset, and/or in the next government, as a direct result of this publication.”

“This is an unprecedented case since the establishment of the state” in that such an announcement is being made against an incumbent prime minister, it said. “Great caution is required in terms of preventing intervention in the election campaign.”

Responding to the petition, the Justice Ministry said there was no legal cause for preventing the publication, saying that the attorney general had always planned to announce his decision “as soon as he completed the work on the cases.”

In its rejection of the appeal, the High Court noted that Likud had waited until hours before the expected announcement to file an appeal. The judges noted that the attorney general had expressed on February 1 his view that it was lawful and appropriate to announce his indictment decision before the April 9 election day.

“The appeal at the last minute is itself cause enough to reject the request,” the decision read.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a State Control committee meeting in the Knesset on December 3, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Likud criticized the High Court’s rejection, saying, “It is unfortunate that the High Court didn’t prevent the left from blatantly intervening in the elections. The High Court itself previously ruled, in a case relating to [Likud MK] Tzachi Hanegbi, that the attorney general should refrain from making announcements during elections and criticized the former attorney general who did so. It is a shame that the High Court didn’t listen to the High Court.”

It has been widely reported that Mandelblit will announce his intention to charge Netanyahu with criminal offenses in all three cases against him on Thursday afternoon. According to the reports, the attorney general has decided to charge the prime minister with bribery in only one case, the high-profile Bezeq corruption probe, in a partial departure from the recommendations of police and senior justice officials.

In Case 1000, involving suspicions that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors in exchange for favors, Mandelblit will reportedly charge Netanyahu with breach of trust — a somewhat murkily defined lesser offense relating to an official violating the trust the public has placed in him.

In Case 2000, involving suspicions Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth, Mandelblit will reportedly also charge the premier with breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery. The case is said to have been a contentious one in Mandelblit’s office, with many prosecution officials reportedly believing Netanyahu should be charged with bribery, while Mandelblit considered not charging the prime minister at all. His decision now is said to be a tentative one, and could change down the road.

In Case 4000, widely seen as the most serious against the premier, he is suspected of having advanced regulatory decisions that benefited Bezeq-controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. Mandelblit is reportedly going to announce he is charging Netanyahu with bribery. Elovitch too will reportedly face bribery charges.

The High Court of Justice also rejected on Thursday a petition to force police to question Netanyahu as a suspect in Case 3000, in which several of the premier’s past advisers and confidants are suspected of taking bribes to advance the purchase of military submarines from a German manufacturer. Netanyahu is not a suspect in the case.

A government-ethics NGO claimed that it was unreasonable to believe that so many of Netanyahu’s close confidants could be implicated in the case without implicating the prime minister. However, the court ruled that “this logical deduction is not obvious, as the appellants argue, and certainly doesn’t meet the standard that could justify interrogating a prime minister under caution,” the court ruled. It noted that the decision not to treat Netanyahu as a suspect was based on the evidence held by police as well as the testimony of the state witness in the case.

Mandelblit’s announcement would mark the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister has been told he faces criminal charges, pending a hearing.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in all three cases, and has alleged that the investigations against him are a “witch hunt” involving the left, the media and the police relentlessly pressuring a “weak” attorney general. Reacting to reports on Israel’s main TV broadcasts Wednesday evening, the prime minister called the apparent plans to charge him with bribery “absurd” and insisted that the prosecution’s “house of cards will soon collapse.”

In a statement announcing its High Court petition on Thursday, Likud said that Mandelblit’s decision was “the result of the leftists’ thuggish pressure over the past three years aimed at toppling the right-wing government and winning the elections outside the ballot box.”

Mandelblit’s decision on a possible indictment was expected to be sent to all suspects in the various cases sometime on Thursday. Prosecutors will contact the suspects’ legal teams and advise them of the allegations against them, after which a statement will be given to the media.

State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan is expected to deliver a detailed statement at the same time, explaining the legal arguments for taking the prime minister to trial, sources in the Justice Ministry confirmed.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, left, and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan at a conference of the Justice Ministry in Tel Aviv, December 21, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

According to Kan public radio, Mandeblit has not accepted all the recommendations of Nitzan and his team of prosecutors and has, in several cases, decided to press lesser charges against some of the implicated suspects, or to drop charges altogether.

In Case 4000, the report said, Mandelblit will not press charges against the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, despite the unanimous agreement of Nitzan’s team that she should be tried for bribery.

Police have recommended indicting Netanyahu for bribery in Cases 1000, 2000, and 4000. Last month it was reported that after reviewing police evidence, the state prosecution had made the same recommendation.

After being notified of an impending indictment, suspects are usually provided with the full case materials against them. However, according to Justice Ministry officials, Netanyahu’s defense team has asked that case files be withheld until after elections on April 9, reasoning they could be used for political purposes and campaign propaganda.

In case of an announcement of an intention to indict him, Netanyahu will be notified that he can request a hearing to contest the planned indictment. The hearing process could take up to a year, during which time Netanyahu is not legally obliged to step down. It’s not clear if Netanyahu could continue to serve after being formally charged with criminal offenses.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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