Israel’s PM Netanyahu to be indicted on bribery, corruption charges
By Oren Liebermann and Andrew Carey
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be indicted on bribery and breach of trust charges arising from three separate corruption investigations, pending a hearing, Israel’s attorney general announced Thursday evening.
The announcement, so close to April’s general election, marks a dramatic moment in Israeli politics and is a major blow to Netanyahu as he seeks a fifth term in office.
He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, denouncing the investigations as a media-led witch-hunt. In a prime time broadcast shortly after the announcement, Netanyahu blamed the left for pressuring Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit — a Netanyahu appointee — to issue an indictment.
“The left understands that they will not beat me at the ballot box,” Netanyahu said. “They exerted extraordinary pressure on the attorney general to issue an indictment even though there is nothing, in order to influence the elections and to crown a left-wing government.”
“This entire house of cards of collapse. I am sure of it 4,000 percent,” he added, referencing one of the cases against him.
Netanyahu is entitled to a hearing on the impending indictment before charges are formally laid, but that is not expected to take place until long after the election. Under Israeli law, Netanyahu is not required to step down if he is indicted. He is only required to step down if he is convicted and that conviction is upheld through the appeals process, which could take years.
Thursday’s developments cloud an already murky Israeli political landscape. Netanyahu’s political enemies will use the investigations against him, but his coalition partners must now decide whether to support a leader who is likely to be indicted or withdraw support and risk angering their shared right-wing voter base.
So far, key right-wing coalition partners have said they will still support Netanyahu since he is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Cigars, champagne, and corruption claims
In the first case, known as Case 1000, Mandelblit intends to charge Netanyahu with breach of trust. Case 1000 deals with alleged gifts Netanyahu received from overseas billionaires totaling 1 million shekels (approximately $280,000), including cigars, champagne, jewelry and more. The alleged transfers occurred between 2007 and 2016. In exchange for the gifts, investigators say Netanyahu tried to advance a tax break that would have benefited the businessmen.
In another case, known as Case 2000, Mandelblit plans to charge Netanyahu with another count of breach of trust. Case 2000 deals with alleged negotiations between Netanyahu and Arnon “Noni” Mozes, the owner of one of Israel’s largest newspapers, Yedioth Ahronoth. Investigators say Netanyahu requested more favorable coverage in exchange for limiting the circulation of Yedioth Ahronoth’s largest rival, Israel HaYom, a free daily owned by right-wing mega-donor Sheldon Adelson that is viewed by critics as a Netanyahu mouthpiece.
The attorney general also announced his intention to indict Mozes with bribery. Mozes’s lawyer has said his client is innocent and he expects the cases to be closed without charges being filed.
In the second case, known as Case 4000, Netanyahu faces bribery and breach of trust charges. This case is arguably the largest facing the Prime Minister. It deals with the relationship between Netanyahu and Israeli telecommunications firm Bezeq. Investigators say Netanyahu advanced regulatory benefits worth 1 billion shekels (approximately $280 million) to the company and its primary shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, a friend of Netanyahu. Along with holding the position of Prime Minister, Netanyahu also served as the Minister of Communications at the time. In exchange for the benefits, the case alleges Netanyahu received favorable news coverage from Walla News!, an online news organization owned by Elovitch.
Mandelblit said he intended to indict Elovitch with bribery, pending a hearing. Like Netanyahu, Elovitch has denied any wrongdoing.
Netanyahu and his high-powered legal team have repeatedly argued that any statement from the Attorney General about the Prime Minister’s legal status should be delayed until after the elections on April 9. Such a statement could affect the outcome of the elections, they argued, with some of Netanyahu’s key political allies saying it could result in an “undemocratic” change in government.
Amir Fuchs, head of the Defending Democratic Values program at the Israel Democracy Institute, says the public has the right to know as soon as possible if there is a suspicion of criminal activity against a Prime Minister.
“I think that if we are past the point that the Attorney General has his decision about a draft indictment, the people have a right to know,” said Fuchs. “Even a final decision by the Attorney General is still not saying Netanyahu is convicted, it’s just a decision by the prosecution.”
Once criticized as too close to Netanyahu, Mandelblit has become the biggest thorn in the Prime Minister’s side. Netanyahu’s allies have attacked the attorney general, saying he spreads “gossip,” as well as questioning his behavior and his decision-making.
Netanyahu rails against charges
Netanyahu has turned the investigations into a key election campaign issue, railing against the probes and denouncing them as a tool of the media and the left wing to try to topple his proudly right-wing government. In public statements, live broadcasts, and on social media, Netanyahu has sought to delegitimize them ahead of the attorney general’s decision.
In mid-February, Netanyahu called Case 4000 a “fabricated case” in one tweet, and followed that up hours later with another tweet.