State prosecutor implies early elections won’t affect decision on Netanyahu

In apparent response to PM’s accusations of politicization, Shai Nitzan defends using state’s witnesses, says ‘only the evidence can decide’

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

State prosecutor Shai Nitzan speaks at a conference in Jerusalem on March 11, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
State prosecutor Shai Nitzan speaks at a conference in Jerusalem on March 11, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With the Israeli political scene galloping toward a snap vote, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan launched a fierce defense of the justice system on Sunday, warning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that victory at the ballot box would not clear his name of serious corruption allegations.

“The question of whether the public is convinced that a certain person is innocent of any crime or accusation certainly has importance in the public sphere,” Nitzan told a joint Israel Democracy Institute and Makor Rishon conference in celebrating “70 Years of Israel’s democracy.

“But,” he continued, “the decision to try someone and rule on their case is not decided by the opinion of the majority or a public referendum.”

Early elections seemed all but unavoidable on Sunday evening, after the spiritual leaders of a major ultra-Orthodox party rejected a compromise on a conscription bill that has roiled the coalition.

Ultra-Orthodox coalition parties threatened last week to vote down the 2019 budget unless legislation is approved this week exempting members of their communities from the military draft, while Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has threatened to quit his post — and, some pundits suggested, possibly the coalition — if the budget isn’t passed this week. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has also threatened to pull his Yisrael Beytenu party out of the coalition should the ultra-Orthodox have their way.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attacks the police over the use of state’s witnesses in a video clip filmed from the US, March 7, 2018. (Screenshot)

The prime minister is beset by several corruption allegations, and his coalition partners have hinted that they would likely dismantle the government should he be indicted. Coalition sources have intimated that Netanyahu is seeking new elections as a referendum on his rule ahead of a possible corruption indictment.

Apparently responding to claims by Netanyahu that the investigations against him are politically motivated and the result of a continued failure to remove him from office via elections, Nitzan said that popularity-based justice system would destroy the rule of law.

“A society were someone’s guilt is decided based on [public] fondness for him, his popularity, or alternatively, their hatred of him… is a society that doesn’t operate according to the principles of law and justice,” he said. “Only the evidence can decide.”

In a Facebook post last week, Netanyahu ​​lashed out at law enforcement officials, ​accusing them of engaging in a conspiracy to bring him down that included encouraging false testimony and illegally pressuring witnesses. The comments came two day​s​ after a former media adviser to the Netanyahu family, Nir Hefetz, agreed to testify against his former boss, the third former close aide to the prime minister to agree to cooperate with police.

In his speech, Nitzan rejected Netanyahu’s accusations against Israel’s justice system, including against its use of state’s witnesses. He said his office would never tell a state’s witness to lie, as Netanyahu had claimed it would.

“We would never enlist a state’s witness and tell him to lie in order to incriminate another person,” he said.

“Signing state’s witness agreements is a major tool in the toolkit given to law enforcement to deal with organized crime and public corruption. This tool wasn’t invented in Israel, and is accepted in other democracies. It’s been recognized as completely legitimate in Supreme Court rulings. And these agreements have proven themselves,” Nitzan insisted.

Such witnesses are vital, he said, because “corruption offenses, especially bribery, are not carried out publicly.”

Nir Hefetz, longtime aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Netanyahu family, arrives for extension of his remand in Case 4000 at the Magistrate’s Court in Rishon Lezion, February 18, 2018. (Flash90)

As part of the state’s witness agreement he signed, Hefetz, suspected of bribery in the case, was told that he would not serve prison time or pay a fine for his actions.

He has promised to provide police with incriminating text messages and recordings of Netanyahu and his wife in several criminal cases, including the Bezeq probe, known as Case 4000, and the so-called Case 1000, which involves allegations Netanyahu received gifts from businessmen in exchange for favors.

Hefetz joins Shlomo Filber, the former director-general of the Communications Ministry and a longtime Netanyahu confidant, who also signed a deal last month to turn state’s witness and possibly incriminate the prime minister in the Bezeq affair.

The Case 4000 investigation involves suspicions that Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch ordered the Walla news site, which he also owns, to grant fawning coverage to the Netanyahus in exchange for the prime minister’s advancement of regulations benefiting him financially.

Officials told Hadashot TV news that suspicions against Netanyahu in the Case 4000 investigation are more serious than the accusations in two earlier cases, 1000 and 2000, in which police have already recommended he be indicted for fraud, breach of trust and bribery.

Elovitch is suspected of giving and receiving bribes and illicit favors worth “up to a billion shekels” — more than a quarter of a billion US dollars — prosecutor Yehudit Tirosh of the Israel Securities Authority said last week, during a hearing. Netanyahu and Elovitch have dismissed the allegation.

Ari Harow, Netanyahu’s chief of staff for a year from mid-2014, last year turned state’s witness and agreed to provide information about those two cases in return for a lighter punishment for separate charges against him relating to an alleged conflict of interest over a business he held.

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