by Hans Izaak Kriek*
Benjamin Netanyahu must answer for a court of law in three corruption cases. The highest prosecutor in the country determined that last week. For the first time in history of Israel a sitting prime minister is charged for bribery and fraud.
“The State of Israel versus Benjamin Netanyahu.” That is how the indictment filed for the first time in Israeli history against a sitting prime minister opened, after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit handed down a harsh and severe charge sheet against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The indictment will significantly impact the ongoing efforts to form a coalition before December 11 when the period of 21 days expires.
Mandelblit will now ask the Knesset to waive Netanyahu’s immunity, a process which can take 30 days. Frequently, indicted MKs waive their immunity sooner, but Netanyahu has been trying to delay any impact on his power from the indictment process and may try to draw out the process longer.
“This is a hard and sad day,” Mandelblit said in a dramatic speech at the Justice Ministry. “I am bringing an indictment on public corruption against the prime minister in three cases. It is sad for me personally and for the country.”
Mandelblit said that while he greatly admired Netanyahu’s talents, he was obligated by the law to press the charges against him. He said that no man was above the law, and that enforcing the law should not be used as a political football by either the Left or the Right.
“Out of a deep commitment to the law and the public interest, law enforcement is not something we can choose,” he went on. “It is not a matter of left or right or of politics. This is our duty.”
The attorney-general indicted Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in a Case, the Bezeq-Walla Affair; for fraud and breach of trust in a second Case, the Illegal Gifts Affair; and for fraud and breach of trust in a third Case, the Yediot Ahronot-Israel Hayom Affair.
“It is not a political issue,” Mandelblit said. “It is an obligation imposed on all of us, those who are part of law enforcement, and on me personally as the one who stands as its head...There is no man who is above the law.”
An hour after Mandelblit’s announcement, Netanyahu addressed the nation from his residence and said that while he has “great respect” for the country’s judicial system, “something not good is happening to the police investigators and the state-attorney’s office.”
The biggest moving pieces had been what the charge would be in the first case and whether in the third case would remain a breach of trust charge as in Mandelblit’s initial February announcement, or whether it would be closed.
Ultimately, the decision to indict Netanyahu for bribery is the most decisive one. It means that his trial will be in a district court, known for being tougher than the lower magistrate’s courts, and that he could face a potential jail sentence of years instead of months or mere community service.
Moreover, it means that any petition to the High Court of Justice, which will doubtless soon be filed after Netanyahu made it clear in his Thursday night speech that he will not quit voluntarily, to remove him from power, has a much better chance.
As early as 2017-2018, The Jerusalem Post received multiple indications that an indictment for bribery could bring down Netanyahu even if he did not voluntarily step down, and that this serious consequence was part of what was making the investigatory process take longer.
In the first case, Netanyahu is accused of involvement in a media bribery scheme in which Walla owner Shaul Elovitch gave him positive coverage in exchange for Netanyahu making government policies favoring Elovitch’s Bezeq company to the tune of around NIS 1.8 billion.
In the second case, Netanyahu is accused of receiving hundreds of thousands of shekels in gifts from rich tycoons, mostly from Arnon Milchin, in exchange for a variety of help with business and personal-legal initiatives. The charge itself is for acting in situations in which Netanyahu had a conflict of interest, since no actual ‘quid pro quo’ could be proven.
In the third case, Netanyahu was accused of working with Yediot and Israel Hayom to reduce Israel Hayom’s competition with Yediot in exchange for positive coverage for Netanyahu in Yediot. The deal never went through, but the law has crimes of attempted bribery and breach of trust that can apply even if a deal does not go through.
Mandelblit explained this obvious discrepancy by saying that Netanyahu’s statements in the alleged bribery negotiations were not as incriminating as Mozes’ statements.
But the fact that Mandelblit decided he needed to maintain a bribery charge against Mozes is probably part of why the attorney-general decided he needed to keep Netanyahu in the case, even at a lesser charge.
State’s witnesses Shlomo Filber and Nir Hefetz appear as strongly against Netanyahu in the final indictment as they did in the initial indictment in February, both in allegations and in the volume of mentions – Filber is mentioned around 90 times and Hefetz around 80 times.
Ironically, state’s witness Ari Harow, who was once considered important to the cases against Netanyahu, is only mentioned around 10 times and often in passive contexts.
Netanyahu is outgoing prime minister and the charge against him does not oblige him to finish his job. As long as he is prime minister he can avoid a conviction. He said the charge is a political witch hunt.
*International political commentator for European Business Review and editor-in-chief of Kriek Media