Netanyahu campaign calls indictment decision ‘attempted political assassination’

Video claiming left-wing conspiracy appears to lay out likely defense in political battle ahead of April 9 elections

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a televised statement after a meeting of his ruling Likud party in Ramat Gan on February 21, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a televised statement after a meeting of his ruling Likud party in Ramat Gan on February 21, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Shortly before Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced an indictment against Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister on Thursday afternoon released a campaign video laying out his likely political defense against the criminal charges, describing them as an “attempted political assassination.”

The clip, shared by the prime minister on Facebook along with a similar video on Likud’s page, slams the cases against him as a politically motivated attempt to bring him down and calls on voters to respond by choosing “specifically Netanyahu” at the ballot box in April’s elections.

Mandelblit on Thursday evening informed lawyers for the suspects in the three cases against Netanyahu that he was pressing charges, subject to a hearing. Mandelblit decided that Netanyahu would be charged with criminal wrongdoing in three separate cases against him, including bribery in the far-reaching Bezeq corruption probe, pending the hearing. The decision marks the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister has been told he faces criminal charges.

“The cases against Netanyahu are a house of cards,” says a baritone voice actor with an ominous growl in the clip, as graphics of playing cards reading the various injustices against the prime minister stack up on screen.

An image from a Likud campaign video showing a house of cards representing the investigations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Screen capture: Facebook)

“How was this house built? By the pressure from the left and the media, ‘positive’ coverage, state’s witnesses, fake news, take away meals and cigars, 43 MKs who were not investigated for supporting the Israel Hayom law,” the voice over continues, listing the top hits of Netanyahu’s past criticisms of the three criminal cases he faces.

In Case 1000, involving suspicions that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors in exchange for favors, Mandelblit said he planned to 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 said he planned to 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.

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. in the most serious accusation, Mandelblit said he planned to charge Netanyahu with bribery. Elovitch will reportedly face bribery charges.

Netanyahu, as repeated in Thursday’s video, has previously mocked the accusation that he received positive media coverage from Walla news in response for regulatory decisions benefiting Elovitch. He has also ridiculed the claim that he received bribes in the form of expensive cigars and that he and his wife Sara defrauded the state by ordering take away meals while also hiring a private chef, the subject of a separate trial against her.

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)

With the announcement of an intention to indict him, Netanyahu has now been notified that he can request a hearing to contest the intended charges. The hearing process could take up to a year, during which time Netanyahu is not legally obliged to step down. It is not clear if Netanyahu could continue to serve after being formally charged with criminal offenses.

“When the hearing comes, everything will fall down,” the Likud video claims, as the house of cards in knocked over.

In an accusation that hearkens back to the murder of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, the narrator then charges that, “the investigations into Netanyahu are a political assignation attempt.”

Reverting from the foreboding red color theme to a bright blue and white, the voice over concludes, “Our response in the ballot box: specifically Netanyahu.”

Thursday’s announcement of the intention to indict the prime minister — who long argued that the decision should be postponed until after the vote so that it would not affect public opinion — places Netanyahu’s legal situation front and center in the campaign.

The decision to press charges, pending a hearing, could have a game-changing impact on the elections, a Times of Israel poll published earlier Thursday showed. The ruling Likud party could lose both a significant chunk of support, as well as its ability to form a coalition after the vote, the survey, published overnight Wednesday-Thursday, indicated.

Thursday’s video suggests that discrediting the investigations is set to be an increasingly key Likud campaign message, painting the prime minister’s accusers as part of a plot to keep him from office.

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, in a preview of Thursday’s video, insisted that the prosecution’s “house of cards will soon collapse.”

A second video clip posted Thursday by the Likud party claims further misgivings: “This is what they didn’t tell you: Netanyahu opposed the Israel Hayom law, 60 critical witnesses were not investigated, Netanyahu was not allowed to confront the state’s witnesses, the coverage of Netanyahu on Walla has and still is hostile toward him, the Justice Ministry confirmed that the Bezeq-Yes deal was approved without any interference from the prime minister.”

The accusations have previously been made by Netanyahu in an attempt to counter the allegations against him. Specifically, he has claimed the the police refused to interview a number of key figures connected to some of the cases, that other lawmakers have more blatantly worked on behalf of media outlets in return for positive coverage, and that he had nothing to do with decisions that may have benefited Bezeq.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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