'It looks like she formed an opinion -- and then went'

Netanyahu aides castigate top prosecutor who went on vacation amid graft hearing

Source close to PM says Liat Ben Ari’s absence on family holiday is ‘simply scandalous’; Justice Ministry says it is not damaging to process, but insiders acknowledge ‘misjudgment’

Liat Ben-Ari. (YouTube screenshot)
Liat Ben-Ari. (YouTube screenshot)

The prosecutor who has led the three corruption cases against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew criticism on Sunday, after she went on vacation and missed the day’s pre-indictment legal proceedings.

A source close to Netanyahu said Liat Ben-Ari, by taking a family vacation this week — as the third and fourth day of the prime minister’s hearings are held — had given 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 her actions showed a lack of public sensitivity.

Ben-Ari, who heads the taxation and economic crimes division of the state prosecution’s Tel Aviv district and was recently appointed deputy state attorney, was present at the first two days of the hearings on Wednesday and Thursday last week, but was notably absent when defense attorneys and top state legal officials resumed the proceedings on Sunday morning. She will also miss the fourth and final day of discussions on Monday.

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

The hearings represent Netanyahu’s final opportunity to dissuade Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit from filing charges of fraud and breach of trust against him in three cases, and bribery in one of them. Mandeblit issued a draft indictment in February.

“It looks like she formed an opinion — and then went,” an aide to Netanyahu told Channel 13 television news. “She is the one who will deal with the case if it goes to court and she needs to know every nuance. The decision [to go on vacation] is simply scandalous.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit (center) arrives at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem for the hearing on the corruption cases in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a suspect, on October 6, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A Justice Ministry source acknowledged to the Ynet website that Ben-Ari’s decision to not delay her vacation “gives a feeling of being inappropriate, disrespectful, and [shows] a lack of public sensitivity.”

“After all, this is the prosecutor with a central role, who is accompanying the case and whose expertise on the evidence and testimony is the most comprehensive,” the ministry source said.

Another source told Channel 13 her departure was a “misjudgment.”

However, officials in the state prosecutor’s office came to Ben-Ari’s defense, with one unnamed official telling Channel 13 that she is “an unbelievably diligent prosecutor who has not taken vacation for a long time, and doesn’t stop working.”

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.

Earlier Sunday, a leading civil rights lawyer criticized Mandeblit for holding pre-indictment hearings while Ben-Ari is away.

Israeli civil rights lawyer Avigdor Feldman seen in the courtroom of the Jerusalem magistrate court, on March 26, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90/File)

“This is unthinkable,” Avigdor Feldman told Army Radio. “It is a scandal. I am amazed that Mandelblit is holding the hearing. If the process doesn’t succeed, they will say it is because the person who is most expert in the case didn’t even attend the hearing.”

Sunday’s hearing lasted over 10 hours, during which 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sworn in as a lawmaker in the 22nd Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

In Case 4000, Netanyahu is alleged to have secured improved coverage from the Walla news website in a quid pro quo arrangement, in which he approved business arrangements of immense financial benefit to Walla’s owner, Shaul Elovitch, the then-majority shareholder in Israel’s Bezeq telecommunications giant.

It is the only case where the more serious charge of bribery is on the table, according to pre-indictment documents handed to Netanyahu’s lawyers by Mandelblit earlier this year.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving gifts such as luxury 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.

The third case, dubbed Case 2000 by police investigators, sees Netanyahu accused of colluding with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to work to weaken a rival pro-Netanyahu daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth. In that case, Mandelblit will seek to charge the premier with breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery. Mozes underwent his own pre-indictment hearing last month.

In all three cases, Netanyahu is suspected of fraud and breach of trust. The prime minister denies any wrongdoing.

Deliberations on the three cases had been set to end by the eve of Yom Kippur on Tuesday, but talks on Case 4000 were not concluded on Thursday as planned, leading to the possibility that the hearings will be extended beyond the holy day, in order to allow the entirety of the material to be addressed. This has not been confirmed, however.

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.

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