In increasingly combative comments as corruption probes against him come to a head, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out Thursday at “the left” and at “the media,” claiming they were coordinating a “thuggish” campaign to pressure Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to announce an indictment against him in order to “steal” the April 9 elections.
Mandelblit, meanwhile, warned of attempts “to undermine the public’s trust in the professionalism and impartiality” of the justice system’s decisions.
In a statement to the press, Netanyahu asserted that “For years now, left-wing protesters and the media have leveled thuggish, inhumane pressure at the attorney general to get him to file an indictment against me at any cost — even when there’s nothing there.
“This pressure is now reaching a climax. They’re trying to force the attorney general to brazenly intervene in the elections by ordering me to a hearing, despite knowing that it won’t be possible to conclude the hearing process by election day. It’s unconscionable to start a hearing process before elections that can’t be concluded by the elections,” Netanyahu said.
“The left….has a clear purpose: to try to depose a prime minister through a drumhead court-martial and to steal the election from you, the citizens of Israel.”
Netanyahu’s was responding to growing reports that Mandelblit intends to announce his decision on whether to indict the premier, pending a hearing, before the election — possibly as early as next month.
Earlier Thursday former state attorney Moshe Lador, who oversaw the prosecution of former president Moshe Katsav and ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert, told Israel Radio Mandelblit must make a decision on the three corruption cases by the end of February, “so the public can digest and internalize its meaning” before election day.
While Lador insisted Mandelblit’s decision must be free of any political considerations — “the decision must be based on ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ whether there is or isn’t enough evidence to construct an indictment” — he also said voters had the right to learn whether the evidence against Netanyahu was serious before making their decision on election day.
“The timing is unavoidable. There’s no other choice because of the elections.”
Lador’s comments drew swift condemnation from the Likud party that echoed Netanyahu’s statement.
In a Twitter post, Likud alleged that “Moshe Lador has been orchestrating a campaign of aggressive pressure on the attorney general for some time to get him to file an indictment against Prime Minister Netanyahu at any cost, even though there’s nothing there.”
It added that Lador “was behind the leaks and interviews of the past week that are meant to pressure the attorney general to brazenly intervene in the elections.” It accused him of being a leftist for his comments.
For his part, Mandelblit, speaking to Channel 10 on the sidelines of a law conference in Haifa on Thursday, insisted he and his team of investigators and prosecutors were immune to the political rhetoric.
“All this ambient noise is just irrelevant. I’ve said for a long time…people can’t disturb our work, they won’t change anything, they can’t change anything. We’re working professionally — only the evidence will have a say,” he said.
“We’re trying to work as quickly as possible, that’s my responsibility and obligation, but under no circumstances at the cost of professionalism. Professionalism always comes before anything else.”
Asked if he expected to reach a preliminary decision on moving ahead with an indictment, subject to a required hearing for Netanyahu, before election day, he shrugged and said, “I’m working. I don’t know.”
Lador wasn’t the only senior former law enforcement official to urge Mandelblit to consider publicizing his decision before the election. Former Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who is also a former attorney general, said it would be appropriate for Mandelblit to announce by the end of February whether he will seek an indictment, suggesting the attorney general should not make an announcement on the subject any closer to election day.
Netanyahu’s belligerent statement on Thursday drew criticism from political rivals.
“A prime minister who is sure that ‘there won’t be anything because there was nothing’ should demand that the attorney general publish his conclusions as quickly as possible,” Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid said.
Labor’s MK Shelly Yachimovich, the new leader of the opposition in the Knesset, called Netanyahu’s comments “violent,” saying they amounted to “a demand that law enforcement authorities lay off him. It’s no different than any other person who’s become seriously entangled in a criminal investigation and faces prosecutors who have found enough evidence to indict him.
She added: “The great danger to Israel lies in the fact that the suspect in this case is the prime minister, who holds the power to bring down with him the institutions of the rule of law, in the sense [the Biblical Samson meant when he said,] ‘Let me die with the Philistines.'”
Recently ousted opposition chief Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) compared Netanyahu to right-wing rioters who had clashed with police forces at the Amona outpost in the West Bank earlier in the day, and Meretz head Tamar Zandberg said the prime minister sounded “like a professional criminal.”
Mandelblit has faced a barrage of accusations from Likud lawmakers and Netanyahu confidants charging that the investigation was tainted.
On December 21, Coalition Chairman MK David Amsalem openly accused Mandelblit of inventing the evidence against Netanyahu.
“As a citizen of this country…I recognize that they’re setting up the prime minister,” Amsalem wrote on Twitter. “We can’t accept that. The ‘day after’ will come, and if someone decides to indict the prime minister in these ridiculous cases, millions of people won’t accept it,” he threatened.
On Thursday, Mandelblit lashed Amsalem’s two-week-old comments, saying they were an attempt to “undermine the public’s trust in the professionalism and impartiality of our decisions.”
The rhetorical skirmishes have picked up steam amid unconfirmed press reports that Mandelblit is nearing the end of his examination of the evidence in Netanyahu’s graft cases. Channel 10 news reported on Wednesday that Mandelblit would be ready to make a decision on whether to seek an indictment by February.
Police have recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for bribery in all three of the probes. Mandelblit is the final authority on whether state prosecutors will ultimately press charges against a sitting prime minister.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving benefits and gifts worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors, including Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, in exchange for assistance on various issues.
Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister hobble rival daily Israel Hayom in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
In Case 4000, reportedly the most serious of the three, Netanyahu is suspected of having advanced regulatory decisions as communications minister and prime minister from 2015 to 2017 that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm, in exchange for positive coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.