Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attorneys have yet to collect the evidence in the three corruption probes against the premier from the Justice Ministry, almost two weeks after the documents were released for them to prepare for a pre-indictment hearing, according to a television report on Monday.
Netanyahu’s attorneys were summoned by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s office to receive the prosecutors’ case files on April 11, two days after national elections that saw Netanyahu seemingly clinch a fifth term as prime minister, so that they can prepare their client’s defense.
They didn’t show, and have not since, according to the report.
At least some of the time since has fallen over the Passover holiday, when most Israelis take off work and many government offices are closed, but a Justice Ministry official surmised to the news channel that the refusal to pick up the material may be a ploy to delay the hearing.
“If someone in the prime minister’s circle thinks that if that they don’t pick up the evidence materials Mandelblit will postpone the hearing — he is bitterly mistaken,” the unnamed official was quoted as saying.
Netanyahu is a suspect in three criminal probes, dubbed by police, Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000, in which investigators have recommended graft indictments. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced in February that he intended to indict Netanyahu in all three cases, pending a hearing.
Citing fears of leaks to the press of the evidence against Netanyahu in the middle of a hard-fought election campaign, the prime minister’s attorneys asked Mandelblit to freeze the hearing process and not release to them the evidence in the case, even at the cost of delaying their preparations for the pre-indictment hearings.
Mandelblit has said the hearings will be held by July.
The prime minister has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and claims that 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 also seek to charge the premier with fraud and 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 Elovitch’s 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 as the so-called “Case 3000,” which snared several of Netanyahu’s close associates, but in which Netanyahu is not currently a suspect.
Speculation has swirled that Netanyahu may use his newfound political strength after Tuesday’s election 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.
Likud MK David Bitan, who is himself under investigation, previously advanced a bill to shield sitting prime ministers from indictments for the duration of their term in office.
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. Advancement of the immunity bill is a key demand to join Netanyahu’s coalition, Channel 12 reported on Monday.
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 by law to resign unless he is convicted. During his hearing, Netanyahu can plead his case before formal charges are filed.
According to an existing law, Knesset members already have the power to grant immunity to one of their number, if a majority of lawmakers are convinced that the defendant has been treated unfairly and the charges are discriminatory or were filed in bad faith.
“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.