Likud campaign ad goes after state witnesses against premier

Top prosecutor rejects Netanyahu’s claim graft charges are politically motivated

Shai Nitzan says decision to indict PM made ‘solely out of professional considerations,’ rebuffs criticism for announcing move before elections

State Attorney Shai Nitzan speaks during a ceremony in Beit Shemesh on November 29, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
State Attorney Shai Nitzan speaks during a ceremony in Beit Shemesh on November 29, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

State Attorney Shai Nitzan on Sunday rejected allegations of bias leveled at prosecutors by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters over the attorney general’s decision to pursue corruption charges against the premier.

Following Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s announcement Thursday that he would charge the prime minister with fraud and breach of trust in three cases, and with bribery in one case, pending a hearing, Netanyahu alleged that Nitzan and senior prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari pushed for his indictment out of political motives.

“There is no basis for these claims,” Nitzan said at a conference in Haifa.

He stressed that prosecutors give no consideration to the political leanings of those they investigate, noting the indictment and eventual conviction of former Kadima prime minister Ehud Olmert for corruption.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media in the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on February 28, 2019, hours after the attorney general announced plans to indict him for corruption, pending a hearing. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The decisions were made solely out of professional considerations based on the evidence. The question of a suspect’s political identity doesn’t interest us and will never be considered by us,” he said.

Liat Ben-Ari (YouTube screenshot)

Nitzan also came to the defense of Ben-Ari, the chief prosecutor in Netanyahu’s cases.

“She is a consummate professional who has dedicated the best years of her life to the fight against corruption,” he said.

Ben-Ari, who heads the State Prosecution’s Tax and Finance Department, was also the chief prosecutor in the case against Olmert.

“We will continue our work as we have so far, in an honest, professional, thorough and swift way. Until a final decision is made at the end of the hearing, nothing will deter us,” Nitzan said.

In his remarks, Nitzan also rejected criticism over the timing of the announcement ahead of general elections in April, and said prosecutors’ timetable was already determined before Netanyahu decided to move up the vote from November 2019.

“If a case is ripe for a decision, there is no reason to wait to publish it only because of upcoming elections,” he said. “The public’s right to know and other legal principles require [we] act in such a way.”

On Saturday, Nitzan and Ben-Ari received backing from Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a right-wing coalition partner of Netanyahu’s, and on Friday Channel 12 news reported that Mandelblit, the attorney general, singled out the two for praise in a letter to the legal team that oversaw the investigations of the prime minister.

In the letter, Mandelblit called the decision to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing, “definitely not a happy day, but… a very important day for a society that upholds the rule of law.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a television speech Thursday, Netanyahu charged that Nitzan and Ben-Ari “were the two prosecutors who pushed especially hard to indict me.”

“One thing is clear. There’s one law for everyone else, and another law for Netanyahu,” he said.

The Justice Ministry later dismissed the accusations as “baseless.”

Though the decision is not final, Mandelblit’s call to charge Netanyahu marks the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister has been told he faces criminal charges, and casts a heavy shadow over his reelection campaign.

Netanyahu will have an opportunity to seek to overturn the decision in a hearing expected to take place in the months following election day on April 9. The process could take up to a year.

The prime minister has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and claims the investigations are part of efforts by the media and Israeli left to remove him from power, with the support of a dishonest police investigating team, overseen by a “weak” attorney general.

In Case 1000, involving accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for favors, Mandelblit said he intends to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust.

In Case 2000, involving accusations Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth, Mandelblit also seeks to charge the premier with breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery.

In Case 4000, widely seen as the most serious against the premier, Netanyahu is accused of having 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 its Walla news site. In that case, Mandelblit announced he intends to charge both Netanyahu and Elovitch with bribery.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former spokesman Nir Hefetz (foreground) and Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch attend a remand hearing at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court, February 26, 2018. (Flash90)

On Sunday, Netanyahu’s Likud party released a campaign advertisement targeting Nir Hefetz and Shlomo Filber, two former top aides to the premier who turned state’s witnesses in the latter case.

The ad, which was shared on Netanyahu’s social media accounts, said the investigation was “rigged” and quoted a Channel 12 journalist as saying, “If there is a case in 4000, it is only because of state’s witnesses.”

It also mentioned decades-old unproven suspicions that Hefetz, a former spokesman for the Netanyahu family, was responsible for a fellow soldier’s death during his military service and included a video clip of a journalist saying former Netanyahu confidant Filber liked a Twitter post saying the case was “rigged.”

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