Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit formally announced on Friday that he will decide Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal fate before the upcoming April 9 election.
Although there have been leaks to this effect, this was the first time that Mandelblit himself confirmed it, rejecting a request by Netanyahu’s lawyers to delay the decision. Some polls have suggested that the announcement could have a decisive electoral impact on Netanyahu and the Likud, while others have suggested that the impact will be minimal.
Mandelblit also explained for the first time why it was legal for him to make the decision pre-election, despite the principle that major legal decisions should not be made leading up to an election.
While the basis for the general rule is to avoid any appearance of bias toward any political party, Mandelblit explained that in this case, delaying the decision would have shown bias in favor of Netanyahu.
He said that, chronologically, his prosecution team first announced publicly that it was beginning its final meetings to make a decision in the public-corruption cases, and that only after that announcement did Netanyahu decide to call early elections.
Accordingly, he said it would be inappropriate to appear to delay the decision about the cases under pressure from Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s spokesman has continually blasted the idea that Mandelblit would determine the fate of the prime minister’s public corruption probes prior to the election, reiterating this after Mandelblit’s announcement on Friday.
The prime minister’s lawyers also sent the media a copy of a letter to Mandelblit demanding that 66 additional witnesses be interviewed – which would require delaying the attorney-general’s decision.
Mandelblit has said that all relevant witnesses have been questioned since the criminal probe was opened in late 2016.
The attorney-general is expected to announce intent to file an indictment against Netanyahu for bribery in Case 4000, the “Bezeq-Walla! Affair.” He is also expected to seek an indictment against the prime minister for breach of public trust in Case 1000, the “Illegal Gifts Affair.”
There has been widespread speculation about Case 2000
, the “Yediot Aharonot-Yisrael Hayom Affair.” Over the weekend, Channel 13 reported that of the six key advisers to Mandelblit on the case, four are in favor of a bribery charge and two are in favor of closing it.
Those supporting a bribery charge are reportedly State Attorney Shai Nitzan, Tel Aviv Economic Crimes director Liat Ben Ari (also the lead lawyer working on the cases), Deputy State Attorney for Criminal Affair Shlomo Lemburger and Deputy Attorney-General for Criminal Affairs Amit Merari.
The two reportedly in favor of closing the case are Deputy Attorney-General Raz Nizri – thought of as Mandelblit’s go-to public explainer – and Haifa District Attorney Amit Eiseman.
Nitzan’s spokeswoman sent mixed signals regarding the report, but overall did not solidly confirm or deny it.
If the report about Merari’s position is correct, it would surprise many observers as many pundits have written that she was added to the team of final decision-makers to help Mandelblit make more lenient decisions in the cases.
Despite the report, The Jerusalem Post has received indications that Mandelblit may seek to close the case even if portions of the prosecution and the entire police investigation team support a bribery charge.
He is concerned that an indictment in Case 2000 could harm the sensitive dynamic between politicians and the media, whereas Case 4000 is viewed as having so overtly crossed the line into the criminal sphere that an indictment is unavoidable.
In addition, whereas Case 4000 led to a gain of hundreds of millions of shekels for Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch, Case 2000 at most avoids an attempted bribery charge that fell through and involved no funds transfer.
In a seven-page legal brief, Mandelblit’s chief aide, Gil Limon, wrote that there was precedent for a decision during the period of elections – such as with Tzachi Hanegbi in 2006.
In addition, the letter said that Mandelblit would not be issuing his decision on the public corruption cases in the next two weeks, but that the decision could come soon after. The evening of February 21 is the deadline for political parties to submit their lists of candidates; it is expected that Mandelblit will announce his decision prior to that.
Mandelblit also rejected all implications by Netanyahu and his supporters that his decision-making process was in any way influenced by anything other than professional legal considerations.
The announcement of his intent to indict decision would start a multi-part process lasting six to 12 months, leading up to a final decision to indict.
In the middle of the process, Netanyahu and his lawyers would get a series of hearings in which they would be able to try to convince Mandelblit to close the cases.
In the past, Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman and some others have convinced the prosecution to back down from their initial leanings, but the Post has reported that Mandelblit is almost sure to bring Netanyahu to trial for bribery in Case 4000.
If Netanyahu wins reelection and is indicted in six to 12 months, there is a debate as to whether he would need to resign or could stay in office until a final and non-appealable conviction.
The Post has reported that in such a scenario, Mandelblit would not defend Netanyahu against a petition to the High Court of Justice to force his resignation. It is rare that the High Court rejects a petition when the attorney-general does not defend against it.
The Post has also reported that, at least at an earlier stage, Mandelblit would have entertained a plea deal with no jail time for Netanyahu if he agreed to a plea bargain and to forego a trial.
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