Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday lashed out at Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit for rejecting his call to delay until after the elections the announcement of a decision on whether to indict Netanyahu for corruption. Netanyahu charged that Mandelblit was failing to do his job properly in rushing to rule on the cases, and claimed that he had “surrendered to the pressures from the left and the media.”
Netanyahu’s direct attack on the attorney general came after Mandelblit said earlier Friday he had rejected a request from the prime minister to delay publicizing his decision on the corruption allegations until after Israel votes on April 9. Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, has previously castigated the left, the media and the police for ostensibly pursuing a witch-hunt and a political vendetta against him, seeking to relentlessly pressure the attorney general to indict him and thus force him from office.
In a video posted to the prime minister’s Facebook page, Netanyahu said that the attorney general’s decision was being influenced by figures aiming to indict him “at any cost, even when there is nothing.”
Netanyahu further claimed that Mandelblit’s decision on the cases — which he called “one of the most crucial in the history of the state of Israel, a decision that may bring to the rising of the left’s rule” — was being made at “record speed” in order to ensure its publication before the elections.
“Senior state attorneys told [Israeli newspaper] Globes that even if Mandelblit had wanted, he could not have had time to read all the materials that deal with the investigations,” Netanyahu claimed, asserting that the attorney general had only read summaries of the case material.
“At any rate, I am sure of my innocence, and I am sure that the truth will come to light,” the prime minister concluded.
Netanyahu’s lawyers are reportedly mulling an appeal to the High Court of Justice to request that Mandelblit be forced to delay the announcement until after election day, according to Hebrew media reports quoting sources close to Netanyahu.
However, legal officials said that the chances of the High Court intervening on the matter are low, as the court has in the past consistently refrained from taking sides in the decisions of the attorney general on issues relating to prosecution and interrogation, the Ynet news site reported.
Netanyahu’s lawyers also issued a forceful response to Mandelblit, urging the attorney general to fully complete the investigation into the alleged corruption cases before publishing any announcements, asserting that another 60 witnesses should still be questioned. They reiterated their claim that the decision must not be published on the eve of elections, and claimed that investigations have not yet been properly completed.
“In this situation, the work of the attorney general, within the framework of a tight schedule, requires too much reliance, not to say dependence, on the opinion of the District Attorney’s Office, ostensibly contrary to the ‘separation of powers’ required, and for the purpose required to ensure the absolute independence of the attorney general’s discretion,” the lawyers’ letter read, according to the Walla news site.
“The combination of large volumes of material and great time pressure raises concerns about errors on various levels — missing exonerating evidence collected during the investigation, and missing exonerating evidence that should have been collected but had not [yet] been collected,” the letter further stated.
The lawyers asserted that 43 MKs who voted for legislation, regarding the Israel Hayom newspaper, that is connected to one of the corruption cases, as well as other elected officials, should be questioned before Mandelblit makes his ruling.
Netanyahu’s attorneys met with Mandelblit last week and asked him not to announce whether he intends to file indictments in three corruption cases against Netanyahu before the April 9 ballot, insisting that doing so would amount to “intervention” in the elections.
In a response sent to Netanyahu’s legal team on Friday, however, Mandelblit said there was “no impediment whatsoever to publishing a decision, however impactful it may be, on filing an indictment against the prime minister, subject to a hearing, before the election date.”
Rather, he said, he had a responsibility to finish the process as quickly as possible and that it was “in the public interest” for that to take place before the elections.
His letter stressed that the state prosecutors are acting out of legal considerations alone, and cannot allow political considerations to play a role in the progress or handling of the case.
Mandelblit argued that delaying the announcement of his decision because of Netanyahu’s concern that it could hurt him politically would itself amount to intervention in the elections.
Hinting that the decision to call elections may have even been an attempt by Netanyahu to push off the decision, the attorney general noted that the Knesset vote to set early elections came just days after he and the team of prosecutors working on the cases said they were beginning a final review of the material.
“This process has already been decided, even before the decision to advance the elections, and there is no justification to deviate from it,” Mandelblit said of the timetable.
Mandelblit said he has now finished examining the evidence and is nearing a decision on whether to indict, which is expected to be announced next month.
Police have recommended Netanyahu be indicted for bribery in three separate cases, including one which involves accusations he gave out regulatory favors in exchange for positive media coverage.
Israelis will head to the polls on April 9, in an election largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, who has served as prime minister for nearly a decade. He has denied the accusations against him and characterized the investigations as a witch hunt driven by the media, the left and the police, meant to remove him from power by undemocratic means.
Netanyahu had seemed on course to a smooth re-election, but the entry into the campaign of former chief of staff Benny Gantz has changed the picture. Polls now show that Gantz could pose an electoral threat to Netanyahu, especially if he were to arrange to head an alliance between his new Israeli Resilience Party and Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid.
If Mandelblit announces he intends to indict, Netanyahu would be granted a hearing to argue against the charges, a process that may take months. A final indictment decision would thus likely come only after election day.
Netanyahu is a suspect in three separate corruption investigations.
In Case 4000, reportedly the most serious of the three, he 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.
Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes.
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. Some reports have suggested that Mandelblit is leaning toward a charge of breach of trust in this case.
Netanyahu has vowed not to step down if Mandelblit announces that he intends to indict him, pending a hearing, in any of the cases against him, asserting that the law does not require him to do so. Mandelblit has confirmed that this is the case.
Israeli law only requires that a prime minister step down if convicted, but experts have suggested that Netanyahu could have a “problem” if he sought to stay in office after a formal indictment was filed at the completion of a hearing process. Under law and High Court of Justice precedent, ministers other than the prime minister are required to step down in such a situation. There is no clear legal rule regarding the prime minister.