By: Erin Viner and Jonathan Hessen
Pre-indictment hearings on corruption allegations against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened in Jerusalem today. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit granted the Premier’s September 26th request to hold the hearings over a four-day period, to ensure that his legal team has sufficient time to present full arguments.
Netanyahu’s call for the proceeding to be broadcast live in a bid to show he has “nothing to hide” was rejected by the Attorney General, who deemed the request to be “unprecedented” and lacking in legal basis. Mandelblit also criticized the Premiers attorneys for submitting only a single page response to the charges, rather than a comprehensive brief outlining the Likud party leader’s planned arguments. “It would have been better if instead of making such an idle request such as this in connection with the hearing — which you well know would not be accepted,” Mandleblit replied to Netanyahu, adding that he should have “worked to comply with the mandatory guidelines under this procedure.”
According to an over-50 page official document reviewed by TV7, the Israeli leader stands accused of committing fraud and breach of trust felonies in three separate cases; known as Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000. He is also alleged to have committed bribery in Case 4000. All of the offences allegedly occurred between October 2011 and December 2016.
Netanyahu and his wife Sara are suspected of accepting an estimated $195,000 value of illicit gifts in exchange for favors from prominent Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, and $75,000 of presents from Australian billionaire business mogul James Packer – who was introduced to Netanyahu by Milchan. The items include expensive champagne, cigars and jewelry.
In his March 2019 notification of pending indictment, Attorney General Mandelblit wrote that Netanyahu demonstrated a “serious conflict of interest” between “obligations to his benefactors and those of the public,” which compelled him to “leverage his position as prime minister.” Moreover, Mandelblit charged that Netanyahu’s alleged “abuse of position significantly harmed the propriety of the public administration,” while also damaging public trust and the integrity of public service.
Specific incidents the Attorney General targeted include illicit actions by the Israeli leader to advance Milchan’s interests, such as help in facilitating a long term visa to the United States, qualification for Israeli tax exemptions and the securing of a major interest in the now-defunct Channel 2 television network.
Netanyahu is alleged to have discussed a wrongful quid pro quo arrangement with Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Israel’s best-selling Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. Prosecutors have reportedly obtained copies of recorded conversations in which the Prime Minister sought improved media coverage in exchange for his efforts to weaken and limit circulation of Yedioth’s “Israel Hayom” rival, including the proposed passing of legislation.
Mandelblit accused the Premier of “severely damaging public trust” during his “detailed and expansive negotiation” with Mozes; who is set to be charged with bribery following his own pre-indictment hearing in August.
In further pursuit of favorable media, Netanyahu is alleged to have planned the easing of government regulations for telecommunications mogul Shaul Elovitch, owner of the “Walla” news website. Elovitch is also the owner of one of Israel’s largest private holding groups, the Eurocom Group; and controlling shareholder and former Chairman of the Bezeq Telecom Israel (BEZQ.TA).
According to Attorney General Mandelblit, prior to and during Netanyahu’s 2014-2017 tenure as Communications Minister, he “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 via their contacts with Shaul and [his wife] Iris Elovitch.”
Positive coverage about Netanyahu was said to have been particularly prevalent during the 2013 and 2015 national elections, while disproportionately negative concerning his political rivals. Mandelblit directly accused Netanyahu of deliberately accepting “a bribe as a public servant in exchange for actions related to position.”
The Attorney General also calculated that Netanyahu’s alleged abuse “power and authority” either “directly or indirectly” provided a $496,866,996 windfall to Elovitch, who was summoned by the State Prosecutor’s Office September 29th for a pre-indictment hearing on charges of fraud, obstruction of justice and violations of Israel’s Securities Law.
The first pre-indictment hearing against Prime Minister Netanyahu begins today (October 2) and is slated to continue on October 4. Both will exclusively be dedicated to Case 4000, as it is considered the most egregious. Arguments in Cases 1000 and 2000 will be held next week on October 6 and 7, in the two days leading up to the Yom Kippur Holy Day of Atonement, which begins at sunset on October 8.
Conviction of bribery carries a prison term of up to ten years, while guilty verdicts for fraud and breach of trust carry maximum three-year sentences per offence.
The Prime Minister has steadfastly maintained innocence of any wrongdoing and has steadfastly maintained that Mandelblit buckled to pressure from the media and the Likud leader’s leftwing rivals. Netanyahu refers to the allegations as “an unprecedented witch hunt” and politically-orchestrated persecution aimed at ousting him from the premiership.
The September 2019 Israeli Voice Index – a monthly survey conducted by the Guttman Center at the Israel Democracy Institute – found that 52% of Israelis do not think that Netanyahu should be offered a plea bargain, in which he would not have to stand trial in exchange for an admission to the charges against him and agreement to retire from public life. 58% of Israelis do not believe that Netanyahu would agree if such a deal was even in the offing.
Attorney General Mandelblit is expected to announce whether he will indict Netanyahu soon after the conclusion of the hearings, although it could take as long as the end of December. After hearing arguments put forth by the defense legal team, he could also decide to either lower or dismiss the charges.
If the Israeli leader is in fact indicted, it could take many months before the convening of a trial. Israeli law dictates that a prime minister may remain in office during court proceedings, although he/she must resign if eventually convicted.
Netanyahu, whose 70th birthday falls in less than three weeks on October 21st, is the longest-serving Premier in Israeli history. He would break yet another record if his current effort to build a national unity government succeeds in securing an unprecedented fifth term in office. He is also the first sitting prime minister to face a pending indictment.