The lead prosecutor in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s three corruption cases is on a trip abroad and is not participating in this week’s two days of pre-indictment hearings, the Justice Ministry said Sunday.
Liat Ben-Ari, who heads the taxation and economic crimes division of the state prosecution’s Tel Aviv district, was present on 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 hearings on Sunday morning. She will also miss the fourth and final day of hearings on Monday.
Asked why she was absent, the Justice Ministry said Sunday she had traveled abroad for an unspecified long-planned trip that could not be canceled. Army Radio said she was on vacation in South Africa with her family.
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 outcome of 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’s attorneys struck a confident tone Sunday morning as they arrived at Justice Ministry headquarters in Jerusalem for the third day of the pre-indictment hearings.
“When we finish our arguments, they won’t have any choice but to close the cases. We believe and expect that’s what will happen,” Netanyahu’s attorney Amit Hadad told reporters at the entrance to the ministry building.
Hadad said Sunday’s discussions would see the conclusion of arguments in Case 4000, the most serious of Netanyahu’s three cases, and the hearings would then turn to Case 1000.
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 Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit earlier this year.
Netanyahu has argued that regulatory decisions that benefited Bezeq and Elovitch were not made by him, and that Walla’s news coverage remained highly critical of him at times when prosecutors claim it was skewed in his favor by Elovitch.
In all three cases Netanyahu is suspected of fraud and breach of trust.
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.
Netanyahu has argued there’s nothing illegal or immoral with receiving gifts from friends. His attorneys are expected to argue on Sunday that the prime minister’s relationship with the two billionaires was one of real friendship, that Netanyahu never acted to benefit Milchan in illegal ways, and that the gifts were worth less than prosecutors have claimed.
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.
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. Channel 12 reported on Friday that the hearings would not be extended, but that was not confirmed by officials.
Channel 13 on Saturday aired new testimonies from Case 1000. According to the TV network, Milchan’s personal assistant Hadas Klein told investigators that the Hollywood producer always brought gifts when he met Netanyahu and his wife Sara as “it wasn’t possible to come empty-handed. The Netanyahus would be very disappointed, to put it lightly.”
She said Netanyahu often asked Milchan for cigars, and once “put a piece of a cigar in my hand that he liked, so we would look for that brand.”
“‘Find me that, I like that,’” she quoted him as saying.
One piece of testimony by Milchan himself claimed Sara once demanded an expensive piece of jewelry for her birthday. When the businessman hesitated, Milchan said “Sara told my assistant ‘You’re disgracing me, tell him he’s disgracing me.’”
“Then Netanyahu called me and said, ‘Listen, she’s been bled dry, help her. She’s being slaughtered every day in the press’… he said there was legal approval, that it checked out 100 percent.”
Responding to the report on Saturday, the Prime Minister’s Office called it “a lie” and said the incidents it detailed “never happened.” It said the reporting was “one-sided, criminal, partial and biased.”
Meanwhile, Saturday evening saw protests and counter-protests near the home of Attorney General Mandelblit in Petah Tikva.
Several hundred supporters of the prime minister chanted in his favor and called for “justice.”
On his Facebook page, Netanyahu thanked the “thousands” for their support.
A smaller group of counter-protesters was nearby, calling for the prime minister’s indictment in the cases against him. Police served as a buffer between the two crowds.
Netanyahu has repeatedly claimed that he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media, the left, police and the prosecution.
However, Netanyahu’s lawyer Ran Caspi said Wednesday he had “complete, unreserved faith” in justice officials leading the investigation against the prime minister.
As part of the hearing process last week Netanyahu’s lawyers presented a legal opinion from five American professors, including Alan Dershowitz, arguing that investigating the swaying of media coverage as a criminal offense, which lies at the heart of Case 4000, constitutes a danger to democracy.