A leading civil rights lawyer on Sunday criticized Attorney General Avichai Mandeblit for holding pre-indictment hearings in three graft cases against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while the lead prosecutor in the cases is on vacation and missing half of the proceedings.
Avigdor Feldman told Army Radio the situation is a “scandal,” after the station reported earlier Sunday that prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari is not participating in this week’s sessions. Ben-Ari is said to have flown to South Africa for a long-planned family vacation.
Ben-Ari, who heads the taxation and economic crimes division of the state prosecution’s Tel Aviv district and was recently appointed deputy state attorney, was present at 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 proceedings on Sunday morning. She will also miss the fourth and final day of discussions on Monday.
“This is unthinkable,” Feldman said. “It is a scandal. I am amazed that Mandelblit is holding the hearing. If the process doesn’t succeed, they will say it is because the person who is most expert in the case didn’t even attend the hearing.”
The Justice Ministry said Ben-Ari had traveled abroad for an unspecified long-planned trip that could not be canceled. Army Radio said she was on vacation.
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 Sunday.
The statement said Ben-Ari’s absence would not affect 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 attorney, Amit Hadad, told reporters at the entrance to the Justice Ministry building, where the hearings are being held, that 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 Mandelblit earlier this year.
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.
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.
In all three cases, Netanyahu is suspected of fraud and breach of trust. The prime minister denies any wrongdoing.
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.
Netanyahu has repeatedly claimed that he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media, the left, police, and the prosecution.