In a special statement to the media Thursday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted he was innocent of corruption allegations for which he is now set to stand trial, pending a hearing, and vowed to disprove the “vile charges” against him.
“One thing is clear. There’s one law for everyone else, and another law for Netanyahu,” he said in a televised statement from the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced Thursday that he intends to indict Netanyahu in three corruption cases, pending a hearing. The premier faces charges of fraud, breach of trust and, in one case, bribery.
Netanyahu insisted that Mandelblit’s announcement to indict him came only because he had caved to “inhuman pressure.
“The media, the left and legal clerks applied inhuman pressure to the attorney general to announce he will file an indictment before the election, even when he knows there’s nothing there. The attorney general is only flesh and blood, so the pressure from the left succeeded,” Netanyahu said.
He named two senior officials in the state prosecution hierarchy — Shai Nitzan and Liat Ben-Ari — who he said had pushed hard for his indictment, and intimated that they were biased against him. “There’s one law for everyone, and a different law for Netanyahu,” he said.
Netanyahu said there was “no explanation” for the timing of the announcement, 40 days before the April 9 election day, other than that it was part of a political vendetta designed to oust his right-wing government and install the left.
“For the first time in Israel’s history, a [criminal] hearing process was launched a few weeks, a few days before elections,” he charged. “Everyone can see that the timing is scandalous, intended to topple the right and help the left rise to power. There’s no other explanation for the insistence on this timing. This is their purpose, to flood the public with ridiculous charges against me without giving me the opportunity to disprove the charges until after the elections,” he said.
“Rest assured: I will disprove the charges,” he added.
State’s witnesses had given “false testimony” against him, “in order to save their skin,” he asserted, but he would bring dozens of witnesses and all the necessary documentation to show that his actions had been beyond reproach,” he promised.
Netanyahu then appealed to Likud voters to stick with him despite the attorney general’s announcement.
“The left mocks the intelligence of Likud voters, but [the voters] know better. Still, it’s enough that only a few will be influenced [by the announcement] to turn the election,” he said.
He vowed “to continue to serve you and the country as prime minister for many years to come. But it depends on you, not on the clerks or [news] studios or the pundits or the reporters, only on you. Don’t let this witch hunt confuse you.”
A lawyer for Netanyahu later said a plea bargain with prosecutors was not in the cards.
In response to Netanyahu’s comments a senior legal official quoted by the Ynet news website dismissed his claims that Mandelblit caved to left-wing pressure as “embarrassing.”
“These are baseless accusations,” the official added. “Unfounded excuses.”
Netanyahu words followed a similar statement from his Likud party, which said Mandelblit’s announcement amounted to an “unprecedented intervention in the elections.”
Likud flatly accused the attorney general of seeking to torpedo Netanyahu’s chances in the April 9 vote.
“A one-sided publication of the attorney general’s statement barely a month before the elections, without the prime minister being given the opportunity to disprove these false allegations, is a callous, unprecedented intervention in the elections. Its goal: to topple the right-wing government led by Netanyahu and establish a left-wing government headed by Lapid-Gantz. That can’t be permitted,” the party said in a statement.
“No one is surprised by the attorney general’s announcement, which comes after three years of massive pressure on him from the media, the left and legal officials to indict the prime minister at any cost — even when there’s nothing [to the charges],” it said.
“This is a political witch hunt. The persecution of the prime minister began with an attempt to rope him with four different bribery cases. Now, even before the hearing, three of those have collapsed,” the party said, apparently referring to the lesser breach of trust charges expected to be brought in Cases 1000 and 2000, and to the fact that Netanyahu is not a suspect in Case 3000.
“The rest of the claims will also collapse like a house of cards when the prime minister confronts the state’s witnesses, brings dozens of witnesses who strangely were not questioned and presents the documents and minutes proving that all his actions and decisions were lawful,” it added.
Mandelblit’s decision is not final. Netanyahu will have an opportunity to overturn it in a hearing expected to take place in the months following Election Day on April 9. The process could take up to a year.
The decision marks the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister has been told he faces criminal charges, and casts a heavy shadow over Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.
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 election campaign.
The decision to press charges, pending a hearing, in the criminal investigations against Netanyahu 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.
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 breach of trust — a somewhat murkily defined offense relating to an official violating the trust the public has placed in him. Milchan is not to be charged.
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 seek to also 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 arguing that 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, Netanyahu is accused of having advanced regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. In that case Mandelblit announced he intends to charge both Netanyahu and Elovitch with bribery.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.