Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used to crow that “there will be nothing [to come from the criminal investigations against him] because there is nothing [to the allegations].”
On Thursday, November 21, 2019, announcing the first-ever criminal indictment against a sitting Israeli prime minister, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit upended that claim. It turned out, according to the charges laid out by Mandelblit, that there was something. Quite a lot, actually.
The investigations into Netanyahu, he specified, required the filing of bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges against the prime minister, spelled out in a 63-page charge sheet that was delivered to Netanyahu’s lawyers, and to the Knesset speaker, that same day.
“The State of Israel v. Benjamin son of Benzion Netanyahu,” begins the indictment (Hebrew) presented by Mandelblit and his team of state prosecutors.
The three cases against Netanyahu (“to be referred from now on as ‘the defendant Netanyahu,'” the charge sheet instructs) can be summarized, as they are in the opening of the indictment, as follows:
- Case 1000 involves accusations that Netanyahu received “gifts and benefits” from billionaire benefactors, including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, in exchange for various favors;
- Case 2000 involves accusations that Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes “to weaken a rival daily,” in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth;
- Case 4000 — the most serious against the premier — involves accusations that Netanyahu “advanced regulatory decisions” that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, in exchange for positive coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site.
Prosecutors, as the indictment details, are charging Netanyahu with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in Case 4000, and fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and Case 2000.
The felony of “fraud and breach of trust” applies when public servants have compromised their ability to act in the public interest, according to Prof. Barak Medina, the former dean of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Law faculty.
“You don’t have to take money or get benefits to be guilty, you don’t even have to discuss it,” Medina noted. “Actively putting yourself at risk of not acting in the public interest is the very definition of fraud and breach of trust. That’s it.”
Bribery, however, is considered an even more severe crime and carries with it the additional label of “moral turpitude” — defined in law as “an act or behavior that gravely violates the sentiment or accepted standard of the community” — which prohibits politicians from running for office for a full seven years after the end of a prison or community service sentence.
And, according to the penal code, a public servant can be found guilty of bribery for requesting or agreeing to receive a bribe, even if the bribes were ultimately rejected or if the deal fell through before implementation.
Netanyahu has slammed the charges, vowed to stay on and fight what he called “tainted” and prejudiced investigations, and accused police investigators and prosecutors of plotting an “attempted coup” to bring him down.
The prime minister has said that in all three cases, he neither used his position as prime minister to help any of his alleged benefactors, nor received any real “benefits” from them. Rather than the “blatant” intervention in Israel’s media market, as well as other realms, that the indictment describes, Netanyahu saw maybe “two and half” positive stories, the prime minister claims.
The full indictment paints a very different picture.
Case 4000: ‘Bribe-based relationship’
In Case 4000, presented first in the indictment due to its severity, the state has issued charges against both Netanyahu and Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq and owner of the Walla news site, with bribery.
In a blistering accusation, the indictment tells how Netanyahu “intervened in a blatant and ongoing manner, and sometimes even daily, in the content published by the Walla news website, and also sought to influence the appointment of senior officials [editors and reporters] via their contacts with Shaul and Iris Elovitch,” the Bezeq owner’s wife.
Elovitch ensured favorable coverage of Netanyahu at Walla, Israel’s second-largest news site, and critical coverage of Netanyahu’s rivals, especially in the 2013 and 2015 election periods, prosecutors charge, including dozens of examples of content that was written, changed, or deleted at the prime minister’s request.
“During the period relevant to this allegation, the sphere of communications coverage had a great deal of significance for the defendant Netanyahu and for his wife, Sara Netanyahu, and he attributed decisive importance to it,” the indictment reads. “The improvement of the defendant Netanyahu’s media coverage and finding outlets to convey his messages were highly significant interests for him.”
In one telling example, prosecutors detail Netanyahu’s efforts to change Walla’s coverage on Election Day 2015, adding another layer to a controversial incident that had already become a symbol of the lengths Netanyahu has been willing to go to remain in power.
Faced with polls showing that the rival Zionist Union party could edge out his Likud, and with just hours left before ballot stations closed, Netanyahu posted a video on his Facebook page at 12:23 p.m. claiming a mass effort to ferry Arab Israeli voters to the ballot stations.
“The rule of the right is in danger,” Netanyahu said in the video. “Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot boxes. Left-wing organizations are busing them in.”
But it was untrue. The Arab vote was only marginally higher than in previous years and only at a few polling stations. There was nothing close to the massive surge that Netanyahu had warned of. There were no buses bringing in droves of Arab voters.
Pollsters, whose initial exit polls put Netanyahu more or less level with Herzog, have since said (Hebrew link) that the message, true or not, was a determining factor in a late surge of support for the prime minister and his ultimate victory.
According to the indictment, the video was able to reach hundreds of thousands more voters than those who saw it on the prime minster’s social media, due to a demand from Netanyahu for Walla to publish the video on its own site and keep it at the top for most of the remainder of election day.
“The defendant Netanyahu ordered [his then-media adviser turned state witness Nir] Hefetz to pass the video onto Elovitch… Elovitch then ordered [Walla CEO Ilan] Yeshua to publish it with the title, ‘Netanyahu: The Arabs are coming in great droves to vote,'” the charge sheet recounts, adding that, as a result of the correspondence, “the video was left as the lead headline on the site for many hours.”
Concluding the reference to the election day video, prosecutors note a text message sent to Yeshua after the story was published, in which Hefetz wrote: “I showed Bibi the lead headline. He’s delighted.”
According to the indictment, “The abnormal nature of this relationship finds expression in the many intensive demands over several years, hundreds of demands, sometimes on a daily basis, that were sometimes conveyed at irregular hours, for coverage or refraining from coverage of one type or another.”
In return for the positive coverage, the indictment claims, Netanyahu intervened in a number of key regulatory and other business decisions that benefited Elovitch to the tune of NIS 1.8 billion — some $500 million.
The allegations of misconduct go back to when Netanyahu replaced Gilad Erdan as communications minister in November 2014, in what critics saw as a power grab to give him increased control over the media and telecom industries. He subsequently fired then-director-general Avi Berger over the phone, in May 2015, and appointed Filber in his stead.
The move, as well as Netanyahu’s insistence that the 2015 coalition agreements include a provision giving him “sole control” over media matters, was aimed at creating less confrontational stance vis-à-vis Bezeq, which Berger had sought to limit, prosecutors allege.
“On the strength of the defendant Netanyahu’s position as prime minister, and, later on, also on the strength of his position as minister of communications, the defendant Netanyahu had authority to grant approvals and permits to various business acts that were performed by Bezeq, the Israeli Telecommunications Corporation, Ltd., and companies connected with it. The defendant Netanyahu likewise had the power to influence governmental topics related to the Bezeq Group,” the indictment says.
And under Netanyahu’s watch, prosecutors allege, Bezeq was given preferential treatment.
For example, in 2014, Israel launched a wholesale market reform to open up the fixed line telephony and internet market, dominated by Bezeq, to vibrant competition. According to the planned reform, as described by the indictment, by March 2017, Bezeq was supposed to lease out its infrastructure to telecom competitors, such as Partner Communications Co. and Cellcom, so they could provide competing fixed line and internet services. With Filber overseeing the implementation, Bezeq reneged on its obligation.
Allegedly at the behest of Netanyahu, Filber started hindering the roll-out of the reform. Bezeq was no longer threatened with fines for not adhering to the timetable for this reform. And, the charge sheet continues, neither did Filber approve the administrative orders — such as setting out the procedures by which the various telecom operators should interact with each other in sharing infrastructure — necessary to advance the process.
As a result, the deployment of high-speed fiber optic cables that would have given millions of Israelis infrastructure for cheaper and faster internet, and ensured Israel’s capacity to maintain a global competitive edge, was significantly slowed.
The relationship between Netanyahu and Elovitch marked a “blatant” conflict of interest, prosecutors say, in which Elovitch intervened “crudely” on Netanyahu’s behalf at Walla, in the expectation, which bore fruit, of business benefit. Netanyahu indeed used his “power and authority” to advance Elovitch’s interests, to the extent that Elovitch “directly or indirectly” made 1.8 billion shekels as a consequence of Netanyahu’s regulatory and other decisions.
“You used your power and authority as a public servant to promote subjects that Elovitch wished to advance, for him or for various companies of the Eurocom Group… You did these things for Elovitch in exchange for the favors that Elovitch did for you as far as coverage. By doing so, you behaved in a biased manner and placed yourself in a conflict of interest between your public roles and your private affairs,” the indictment charges.
In short, Netanyahu and Bezeq boss Elovitch engaged in a “bribe-based relationship,” the charge sheet says.
Crucially, prosecutors say that the prime minister “acted in a biased manner and placed himself in a severe conflict of interest between his public positions and his private affairs, broke the rules that applied to him as a public servant, and committed acts of breach of trust that cause substantial damage to the proper behavior of the administration, the integrity of public servants, and the public’s trust in public servants.”
And, “by doing so, the defendant Netanyahu committed acts of fraud and breach of trust that cause substantial damage to the proper behavior of the administration, the integrity of public servants, and the public’s trust in public servants.”
Case 2000: ‘Severely damaging public trust’
Next in the indictment document comes Case 2000, which involves accusations that Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
In this case, the state will charge the premier with breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery. The case is said to have been a contentious one in Attorney General Mandelblit’s office, with many prosecution officials reportedly arguing that Netanyahu should be charged with bribery, while Mandelblit considered not charging the prime minister at all.
Under the alleged agreement between Mozes and Netanyahu — which was not implemented — the prime minister said he would advance legislation to curb the circulation of the Israel Hayom daily, if Mozes instructed his reporters and op-ed writers to change their often negative stance toward him, the indictment charges.
From 2009, “Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes held conversations and personal meetings during which they discussed helping each other as a quid pro quo to advance their respective interests,” the indictment says.
“At that time, and with the elections approaching, a change in the way in which the defendant Netanyahu was reported in Yedioth Ahronoth and on [its news website] Ynet was of great importance to him, and he felt that it had a critical influence upon the chances of him winning the upcoming elections.”
Prosecutors claim that Netanyahu therefore offered his support for possible measures including closing Israel Hayom, helping to shrink the newspaper’s circulation numbers, and nixing the free daily’s weekend edition. The law did not pass, as the government folded and went to elections in 2015.
Furthermore, “the sides took actual active steps in advancing each other’s interests in continuation of the understandings reached between them, or at least presented to each other as if they had acted that way.”
Detailing a number of meetings between Netanyahu and Mozes, the indictment includes quotes from recordings that were unearthed in a separate investigation into former Netanyahu aide Ari Harow, who allegedly taped the conversations. Harow has since turned state’s witness.
The key exchange between the prime minister and his media rival took place in “The Fourth Meeting,” on the December 4, 2014, shortly after the Knesset dissolved and called elections.
“During the fourth meeting, Mozes offered you a bribe. As part of this offer, Mozes promised to work for a substantial change in the way that you and your family were reported in the media outlets owned by the Yedioth Ahronoth group, and for a change for the worse in the coverage of your political rivals,” the indictment claims.
“Assuming that there is a law that you and I agreed upon, I will do my efforts to ensure that you are here for as long as you wish. I told you that, and I repeat it, looking you in the eye and telling you this,” Mozes is quoted as telling Netanyahu.
The conversations took place after a bill requiring Israeli newspapers to charge minimum fees passed the first of three readings in the Knesset in November 2014, apparently catching Netanyahu off guard. The legislation, dubbed the Israel Hayom bill, was drafted by then Zionist Union MK Eitan Cabel, who has faced police questioning in the case. Mozes is believed to have been the bill’s mastermind. Cabel has denied any wrongdoing.
Weeks after the bill was advanced, in December 2014, Netanyahu dissolved the Knesset, ushering in new elections and thwarting any efforts to further advance the legislation.
Yedioth, once the country’s largest tabloid, is often seen as critical of Netanyahu.
According to the charge sheet, Mozes, in return for the prime minister’s help, offered Netanyahu a “direct line” to the editors of both Yedioth and its Ynet website, Israel’s leading news site, telling him he could “have direct influence on articles about him.”
Despite seeking a charge of bribery only against Mozes, with just fraud and breach of trust being leveled against Netanyahu, prosecutors nonetheless accused the prime minister of “severely damaging public trust,” by carrying out a “detailed and expansive negotiation” with Mozes over his offer, rather than stopping it immediately.
“After Mozes offered the defendant Netanyahu the aforementioned bribe, even though he had no intention of promoting the bill, he did not turn down his offer, nor did he conclude the meeting with him. Instead, the defendant Netanyahu told him that there was a real possibility that he would use his governmental power to promote the legislation that benefited him in accordance with the offered bribe,” the indictment reads.
Case 1000: ‘Serious conflict of interest’
In Case 1000, the final case presented in the indictment, Netanyahu is alleged to have received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors, including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian mega-investor James Packer, in exchange for favors. The indictment charges Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust, while closing the case against Milchan.
According to the indictment, Netanyahu and his wife received gifts amounting to NIS 701,146 ($195,000), with NIS 477, 972 ($130,000) worth of cigars, champagne and jewelry from Milchan, and NIS 229, 174 ($75,000) worth of cigars and Champagne from Packer, creating “serious conflict of interest between his obligation to [the benefactors] and his obligation to the public.”
“As well as the friendly relations the defendant Netanyahu and Milchan shared, the defendant Netanyahu received various benefits, at times in response to his specific requests… At times, these benefits were given to him to lever his public position as prime minister,” the charge sheet says.
The indictment notes three instances where Netanyahu used his position to advance Milchan’s interests: helping him secure a long-term US visa; working to extend a little-known tax exemption law that would benefit the Hollywood producer; and working to advance Milchan’s investment interest in the Israeli media scene.
Amendment 168 to the Tax Ordinance is ostensibly a piece of legislation meant to encourage aliyah (immigration to Israel) to Jews living abroad, Amendment 168 to the Income Tax Ordinance was signed into law in September 2008 by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert. As it stands, it grants a 10-year tax exemption on income earned abroad to new immigrants and to returning residents who have lived abroad for at least 10 years. In addition, it gives those eligible a 10-year exemption on reporting earnings abroad.
The law, however, flies in the face of international anti-money laundering standards and each year, for the past several years, the finance minister has tried to abrogate it. Each year, as part of negotiations over the Arrangements Bill, the effort to cancel it is scuttled, putting Israel in danger of being placed on international anti-money laundering sanctions lists.
Both the Finance Ministry and the State Comptroller have agreed that the law, even in its current form, leeches millions of potential shekels from the state coffers each year and does more to help Israel thrive as a shady tax haven than it does to encourage aliyah. Nonetheless, every year what has been described by officials as “a hidden hand” ensures that the exemption remains part of the state budget against the wishes of the Treasury.
According to the indictment, Netanyahu twice asked then-finance minister Yair Lapid in 2009 about expanding the provisions of the law, on one occasion specifically asking what changes would be needed in order to allow Milchan, also an old friend of Lapid’s, to benefit as best as possible.
Netanayahu was acting on the specific request of Milchan, the indictment alleges, saying that Milchan could have potentially saved millions of dollars in taxes had the change to what has become known as the “Milchan Law” not been thwarted by the Treasury.
The second intervention Netanyahu made on behalf of Milchan, according to the charge sheet, came in the form of repeated efforts to secure him a long-term US visa by asking then-US secretary of state John Kerry about the issue three times in 2014, as well as asking then-US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro on a number of occasions.
On one occasion, the indictment recounts, Milchan came to the Prime Minster’s Office in Jerusalem and, while there, Netanyahu phoned Kerry to discuss the visa.
Born in Israel, the Los Angeles-based Hollywood producer Milchan, 72, never became a US citizen, but used to enjoy 10-year visas to live there. However, in 2013, he gave an interview to Israel’s Channel 2 in which he acknowledged that he had worked in the past for the Israeli intelligence community. In the wake of his disclosures, according to Channel 2, Milchan — behind such movie hits as “Fight Club,” “Pretty Woman,” “LA Confidential,” “12 Years a Slave” and “The Big Short” — was no longer granted 10-year US visas, and instead was required to apply for an annual extension.
Netanyahu has admitted to asking Kerry to intervene to restore the 10-year US visa, but claimed it had nothing to do with the gifts, and that he has made similar gestures for others.
The indictment says that Netanyahu’s efforts were the contributing factor in securing the visa renewal.
Finally, regarding Case 1000, state prosecutors allege that Netanyahu carried out a series of interventions that aided Milchan in his attempt to secure a major interest in the now-defunct Channel 2 TV station.
Before it was split into two separate channels, Channel 2 was operated by two franchises, Reshet and Keshet. (Keshet now operates Channel 12 while Reshet runs Channel 13.) Under the plan hatched by Netanyahu and Milchan, the Hollywood producer would have gone into partnership with Reshet. Then, at some point in the future, Milchan is believed to have hoped to merge Reshet with Keshet.
Netanyahu allegedly helped set up a number of meetings between Milchan and relevant investors, and instructed then-Communications Ministry director general Filber to help move the issue forward.
Based on these actions and the “serious conflict of interest” stemming from the gifts given to Netanyahu by Milchan, prosecutors say that the prime minister has “damaged the image of public service by… keeping up a long-term prohibited relationship.”
The indictment notes “uncustomary actions” by Netanyahu in the requests he made of the US State Department, the finance minister and the Communications Ministry director general.
“In his actions, the defendant Netanyahu abused his position and status and significantly and seriously harmed the propriety of the public administration, the integrity of public servants and public trust in public servants,” prosecutors ultimately charge.