Culture Minister Miri Regev on Sunday fired back after reports emerged that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will decide whether to indict the prime minister next month, ahead of April’s elections, saying it appeared the country’s top lawyer was “trying to join the chorus that aims to topple Netanyahu.”
The comments, made as Regev sat a few seats along from the prime minister at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, appeared to mark the first direct, named attack on Mandelblit by a Likud minister over his handling of the corruption investigations of Netanyahu. The prime minister has accused the left, the media and the police of pursuing a witch hunt and political vendetta designed to oust him.
Regev also said that the prime minister must be given the opportunity to publicly defend himself.
“Mandelblit cannot publish his recommendations without letting the prime minister respond,” Regev said, according to the Kan public broadcaster. “It is unacceptable that the public is only hearing one side. The prime minister has the presumption of innocence and the right to defend himself and to express his position.”
The Haaretz daily on Sunday quoted a source in the attorney general’s office as saying that Mandelblit is expected to announce his decision on a possible indictment in February, buttressing earlier reports.
According to the report, senior Justice Ministry officials and Mandelblit’s predecessors have informed him they believe it is his duty to announce his decision — which is subject to a hearing with the prime minister before any indictment can be filed — before voters go to the polls.
In response, a statement issued to the newspaper on behalf of the prime minister suggested that Case 4000 — the Bezeq corruption probe, considered the most substantial of the three cases against Netanyahu — was being conducted without due process.
“Something stinks. The average time to decide on cases of public figures in the State Prosecutor’s Office is 18 months. In Case 4000, it has taken less than 18 days. Nothing has ever run amok in this way in the history of Israeli law, and it is doubtful that it has occurred in the history of democratic states,” the statement read.
“It is clear to all that the lack of good faith is not found in Prime Minister Netanyahu, but in those who again leaked the unbridled and baseless attacks against him,” the statement concluded.
Mandelblit has refused to publicly comment on the timeline for his decision.
The attorney general, speaking to Channel 10 news on the sidelines of a legal conference Thursday, said there would “clearly” be no requirement for Netanyahu to step down while a hearing process was in motion, but made no comment as to whether he would make his decision on a possible indictment in the course of the election campaign. When it was suggested to him that he could determine who Israel’s next prime minister would be, Mandelblit said he had “no idea” about that, and that such thoughts did not enter his mind.
In recent days, top Israeli legal officials have been pushing back against Netanyahu and those of his supporters who have criticized the state prosecution’s handling of the corruption cases against him, warning of efforts to undermine public faith in the rule of law.
Mandelblit complained in a speech on Thursday about irresponsible attempts to harm the rule of law of Israel and undermine public trust in the law enforcement hierarchies. State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan said Friday that a top Likud MK’s recent tweet protesting that millions of Israelis would “not accept” an indictment of Netanyahu was “super-problematic.” And state legal officials were quoted anonymously on Friday night’s Israeli TV broadcasts warning that Netanyahu’s political allies were working to delegitimize the state prosecution.
In some of his most combative comments to date on the corruption probes against him, Netanyahu lashed out Thursday at “the left” and at “the media,” claiming they were coordinating a “thuggish” campaign to pressure Mandelblit to announce an indictment against him in the near future in order to “steal” the April 9 elections. Netanyahu also reiterated a recent theme of his that it would be democratically unacceptable for Mandelblit to announce his intention to indict, pending the hearing to which Netanyahu would be entitled, since the hearing process is a lengthy one that could not possibly be concluded before election day.
Netanyahu has vowed not to step down if Mandelblit announces that he intends to indict him, pending a hearing, in any of the cases against him, asserting that the law does not require him to do so. Judicial officials have anonymously said that this is true, but that Netanyahu would have a “problem” if he sought to stay in office were a formal, final indictment subsequently filed at the completion of the hearing process.
Nitzan, the state prosecutor, who is reported to have completed his work on the three cases concerning the prime minister and to have recommended indicting Netanyahu in all of them, on Friday castigated comments made recently by Netanyahu’s coalition chief David Amsalem, who wrote in a tweet two weeks ago that the prime minister was plainly being framed and that if he was indicted “millions of people won’t accept this.”
Said Nitzan, “That’s a super-problematic thing to say.”
The rhetorical skirmishes have picked up steam amid the unconfirmed press reports that Mandelblit is nearing the end of his examination of the evidence in Netanyahu’s graft cases. Channel 10 news reported on Wednesday that Mandelblit would be ready to make a decision on whether to seek an indictment by February.
Police have recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for bribery in all three of the probes. Mandelblit is the final authority on whether state prosecutors will ultimately press charges against a sitting prime minister.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving benefits and gifts worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors, including Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, in exchange for assistance on various issues. Some reports have suggested that Mandelblit is leaning toward a charge of breach of trust in this case.
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 rival daily Israel Hayom in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth. Some reports have suggested that Mandelblit may close the case; Channel 10, by contrast, asserted Friday that state prosecutors are leaning toward a bribery charge.
In Case 4000, reportedly the most serious of the three, 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.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing, and has claimed the investigations are part of a political vendetta and witch hunt, aimed to oust him, involving the political left, the media and the police.