State prosecutors and Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyers on Monday were finishing four days of pre-indictment hearings over a slew of corruption allegations against the prime minister.
Netanyahu’s lawyers arrived at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem for what was expected to be the final day of the proceedings. They met there with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and his team to appeal that the cases against Netanyahu be dropped.
After the sides failed to conclude discussions last week in a different case, Mandelblit was reported to be considering adding another day of hearings, but the Haaretz daily reported the Justice Ministry was working to end the process on Monday and avoid extending it any further.
Again absent from the day’s hearing was Liat Ben-Ari, the top prosecutor in the case, whose decision to take a family vacation has sparked anger.
The hearing was to focus on so-called Case 1000, in which Netanyahu is suspected of receiving gifts such as champagne, cigars and jewelry valued at some NIS 700,000 ($201,000) from billionaire benefactors Arnon Milchan and James Packer, and allegedly reciprocating in Milchan’s case, with various forms of assistance.
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in the probe, as he does in the other two cases against him. In Case 4000, considered the most serious, he also faces a bribery charge.
Ben-Ari drew criticism on Sunday for her absence from this week’s hearings, with a source close to Netanyahu telling Channel 13 that by taking a family vacation this week, she was giving the impression that she has already decided the outcome of the hearings and thus did not bother attending. The Justice Ministry defended her, but a ministry source acknowledged to the Ynet news site that her actions showed a lack of public sensitivity.
The Justice Ministry said earlier that Ben-Ari had traveled abroad for an unspecified trip that could not be canceled. The hearings were originally scheduled to take place over two days last week, but Netanyahu’s attorneys asked two weeks ago, long after Ben-Ari’s travel plans were finalized, to add two more days of hearings this week, the ministry said.
The statement said Ben-Ari’s absence would not affect the indictment decision.
“The hearing is taking place before the attorney general, who is the one authorized to make the decision [on an indictment] in the case, and a broad representation of prosecutors from the [Tel Aviv] district are taking part.”
In fact, the attorney general’s office had stated in a letter on May 22 that, while the first two days of the hearing would be held on October 2-3, it might be extended “if necessary” into the week of October 6.
At Sunday’s hearing, Netanyahu’s legal team wrapped up their arguments in Case 4000, the most serious of the trio of cases against the prime minister, and began their defense in Case 1000 and Case 2000.
Case 4000 concerns suspicions that Netanyahu pushed regulatory decisions financially benefiting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications group, in return for ongoing positive coverage from Bezeq’s Walla news site.
In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of agreeing with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth. The agreement was never implemented.
Netanyahu has repeatedly claimed that he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media, the left, police, and the state prosecution, designed to oust him from power.
The legal woes come as Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival, with the country’s unprecedented second election of the year failing to provide him with a clear victory. In last month’s election, neither Netanyahu nor his chief challenger, Benny Gantz, secured the required parliamentary majority to form a new government. Both men have expressed support for a unity government as a way out of the deadlock, but they remain far apart on who should lead it and what smaller parties would join them.
Gantz and his centrist Blue and White Party have so far rejected a partnership with Netanyahu, citing his legal woes. A failure to reach a deal could trigger a third election in less than a year.
Israeli law requires cabinet ministers to step down if charged with a crime. But the law is vague for sitting prime ministers, meaning Netanyahu could theoretically remain in the post if he is indicted, though he would likely face calls to step aside.