Netanyahu hearings end, but defense gets two more weeks for written submissions

Attorney general said aiming to decide by mid-December on whether to file charges; unsourced reports claim PM’s team failed to shake bribery allegations

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit arrives at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem for the hearing on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption cases on October 7, 2019. (Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit arrives at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem for the hearing on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption cases on October 7, 2019. (Flash90)

State prosecutors and Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyers on Monday evening wrapped up four days of pre-indictment hearings over the pending corruption charges against the prime minister.

Netanyahu’s lawyers met with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit for over 10 hours at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem on the final day of proceedings, during which they aimed to persuade the state prosecution to close the cases against the prime minister.

Monday’s hearing focused on Case 1000, in which Netanyahu is suspected of illicitly 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 Case 1000, as he does in the other two cases against him, Cases 2000 and 4000. In Case 4000, he also faces a bribery charge.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyers arrive at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem for the fourth day of pre-indictment hearings on October 7, 2019. (Flash90)

Unsourced reports in Hebrew-language media said Mandelblit determined at the end of the hearings that there was no need for supplementary investigation into the allegations in the light of the Netanyahu defense team’s presentations.

They said Netanyahu’s lawyers asked to submit further defense material in writing to complete their presentation, and that Mandeblit gave them until the end of the Sukkot holiday, two weeks from now, to do so.

Mandelblit is reportedly expected to publish his final decision over whether to indict Netanyahu in the three corruption cases by mid-December. Mandelblit published a draft charge sheet in February.

Channel 12 reported Monday that Netanyahu’s lawyers failed to produce game-changing evidence during the hearings, but, rather, offered a different interpretation of the evidence already gathered by police. “The question is whether this interpretation will prove persuasive” to Mandeblit, the TV report said. A Ynet report quoted “legal sources” saying the defense submissions had failed to undermine the gravest allegations Netanyahu faces, of bribery in Case 4000.

At Sunday’s hearing, Netanyahu’s legal team had wrapped up its arguments in Case 4000, the most serious of the trio of cases against the prime minister, and began its presentations in Case 1000 and Case 2000.

Case 4000 concerns allegations 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.

According to Channel 12, Bar Ilan University law professor Avi Bell testified on behalf of Netanyahu during Monday’s hearing, arguing that the prosecution’s case against the prime minister was on shaky legal ground.

Bell was one of five legal experts (among whom was also Harvard University’s Alan Dershowitz) who penned a legal opinion to Mandelblit arguing that indicting the prime minister over his relationship with the media would pose a danger to Israeli democracy.

Tel Aviv District prosecutor Liat Ben Ari. (Justice Ministry)

Again absent from Monday’s hearing was Liat Ben-Ari, the lead prosecutor in the case, whose decision to take a family vacation this week has sparked criticism.

After Army Radio highlighted her absence Sunday, saying she had flown to South Africa for a long-planned vacation, the Justice Ministry confirmed that she was overseas.

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)

A source close to Netanyahu told Channel 13 on Sunday 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 ministry sources acknowledged that her actions showed a lack of public sensitivity.

The Justice Ministry initially said 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.

Its 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.

Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, 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 again 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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