Exclusive: Fate of Netanyahu, the government and the criminal probes

Netanyahu is in much deeper legal jeopardy than he was before.

By
June 15, 2018 13:44
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, May 6th, 2018.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, May 6th, 2018.. (photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/POOL)

 
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Case 4000 was a game changer for Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit.

He will not say it out loud yet, but the chances are very high that sometime in 2019 he will announce his intention to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Case 4000 – the Bezeq-Walla! affair.

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This will start the real battle over whether Netanyahu must resign, which would also cause the government to fall.

The all-important debate over whether a prime minister under indictment must resign or can be forced to quit by the High Court of Justice may then hinge on whether Netanyahu is indicted for bribery or mere breach of public trust and on how many cases he is indicted in.

What will Mandelblit do about all of these questions, as he holds the fate of the nation in his hands?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

One clear message is that if Netanyahu is indicted for bribery and in multiple cases as opposed to mere breach of public trust, Mandelblit, who is more relaxed about the massive weight on his shoulders than he was a few months ago, is much more convinced that ultimately the prime minister would need to step down.

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Bribery charges are also more likely than they were some months ago.

How stepping down would happen is still complicated, and The Jerusalem Post learned that it is very unlikely that Mandelblit would himself push out the prime minister.

But recognizing that former High Court presidents Aharon Barak and Meir Shamgar have both said an indicted prime minister must or should step down, one could see Mandelblit standing before the High Court and telling them that it is hard for him to defend the prime minister continuing. If he took that position, it could give them the cover to order a resignation.

Not that any of this is guaranteed, with recently retired High Court president Miriam Naor repeatedly refusing to take a stance on the all-decisive legal question so as not to tie the High Court’s hands.

Also, with Mandelblit’s negotiation style with Sara Netanyahu on display and his former closeness to the prime minister, there is a decent chance that he might succeed in avoiding this. He might convince Netanyahu to step down or decline to run for reelection of his own accord.

To understand how, after the last few months, Netanyahu is in much deeper legal jeopardy than he was before, we need to return to Case 4000.

Case 4000 alleges that the prime minister pushed for government telecommunications policy to benefit Bezeq, in return for positive media coverage from the Walla! media outlet – both owned by tycoon Shaul Elovitch.

SOME OF what the Post learned recently was very surprising and goes against the grain of what much of the media is reporting.

First, while Case 4000 has many strong points, sources close to Mandelblit say he views the most powerful evidence against the prime minister as very clear. His alleged order to his former campaign manager and director-general of the communications ministry, Shlomo Filber, to approve Bezeq’s merger with Yes – against all professional-level advice – is very damaging.

This was a massive and provable financial gain for Elovitch. Until Filber turned state’s witness, Netanyahu could present Filber as a nonpolitical professional who supported the merger on substantive grounds (even if most nonpolitical experts opposed it).

However, once Filber turned state’s witness and said that the merger was improper and that he had backed it only under Netanyahu’s orders, this defense likely fell by the wayside.

While much of the media is reporting that Case 4000 is extremely similar to Case 2000 and greatly increased the likelihood that Case 2000 will lead to an indictment, in a profound surprise, Mandelblit views them as mostly different.

As mentioned, Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla! affair, is essentially about media bribery.

Case 2000 is also about media bribery. The prime minister is accused of trying to reduce Israel Hayom’s competitiveness in exchange for positive coverage from Yediot Aharonot.

But other than the common media bribery theme, Mandelblit views the cases as very different, not only in terms of the different players with whom Netanyahu interacted, but also in terms of the evidence that can be brought to prove each evidentiary point necessary to put together a full case.

For one, Case 4000 alleges actual media bribery, and Case 2000 alleges only attempted media bribery.

Mandelblit would agree that the trend of Netanyahu allegedly being involved in media bribery as well as information provided by the prime minister’s former top adviser and now state’s witness, Nir Hefetz, improved Case 2000. He would say Case 2000 was improved from a very hard case to win to becoming more possible. But he is still dismissive of those who view it as a slam dunk and views Case 2000 as the weakest of the three cases.

Just as significantly, there has been much less reporting about the connection between Cases 4000 and 1000. Yet it is there where Mandelblit surprises again and would say that the Bezeq-Walla! affair may have moved a case that was already somewhat stronger than Case 2000 into a clearer candidate for indictment.

A very real scenario is indictments in Cases 4000 and 1000, with Case 2000 being closed.

Why? Essentially, they both involved Netanyahu in allegedly corrupt relationships with rich and powerful figures who were allegedly looking to get special treatment by providing benefits to him.

In Case 1000, billionaires Arnon Milchan, James Packer and possibly some others allegedly gave the prime minister extremely expensive cigars, champagne and other gifts to curry favor with him on a variety of business issues.

Sources close to Mandelblit specifically point out that new evidence from Hefetz has helped bolster the argument that Milchan had what to gain from his gifts to Netanyahu, and that the prime minister was acting to assist Milchan in exchange.

Until some of this evidence came in, the evidence to prove that Netanyahu acted on behalf of his wealthy gift-givers was much slimmer in Mandelblit’s version of events.

Since he always showed he was unimpressed with the narrative that simply the gifts themselves to the prime minister essentially proved a crime, these new pieces of evidence were crucial for him regarding Case 1000.

This also explains why Case 1000 may be slowed down some months to allow Case 4000 to catch up.

True, the police had already recommended Netanyahu be indicted for bribery in Case 1000 in February. True, the prosecution staff are already basically ready to send Case 1000 to State Attorney Shai Nitzan, endorsing the police’s recommendation.

Yet Mandelblit consistently exhibits a preference, both in the prime minister’s cases and in his wife’s cases, to bundle them together in one decision.

Add in that Hefetz’s new evidence for Case 4000 also influenced the picture of evidence and helps prove Netanyahu’s alleged corrupt intent in Case 1000, and it becomes likely that the attorney-general will wait on Case 1000 until he can issue a global decision on all of the cases.

No matter how hard he is pressed, Mandelblit is very careful not to commit to any specific date about the prime minister’s cases. But the vibe is very clear that his decision will come out in 2019 and maybe in only a few months.

WHEN ONE speaks of his decision, the meaning is not the final decision to indict, but an earlier decision which will already fundamentally alter the political and legal playing fields.

In the case of senior public officials, there are two major stages that already have some public exposure before the decision to indict.

First, the attorney-general publicly announces an intention to indict. In that decision, the attorney-general usually give substantial detail outlining the allegations and evidence that will be likely be contained in the indictment.

That is what will likely happen during 2019 and possibly within only a few months.

Though it is not an indictment itself, it will heavily increase the calls for Netanyahu to resign and may lead to the first serious petition to the High Court to force the prime minister to step down if he attempts to keep going.

If Netanyahu stays on, the next step would be a pre-indictment hearing, where the prime minister’s lawyers get a special shot at convincing Mandelblit to back down or reduce the severity of the indictment.

When Avigdor Liberman was due to be indicted, he successfully got Mandelblit’s predecessor, Yehuda Weinstein, to close the larger of two cases against him, though one indictment still went to trial.

However, more often than not, the pre-indictment hearing does not fully eliminate all charges.

Though the vibe is that the end is in sight with the prime minister’s cases, which became official in January 2017 (with pieces having broken in the news even earlier), there are many questions about why Mandelblit has not already decided the cases and is not moving faster.

The attorney-general would say that if he had skipped reviewing new evidence that came out from Hefetz, he would be attacked for blocking the police from following all of the possible leads. This is a theme he shared with the Post in early 2017.

In this spirit, Mandelblit would note that while most of the new evidence from Hefetz helped the prosecution’s cases, there is also some evidence that might help Netanyahu’s defense.

He is concerned that he could be accused of concealing evidence if he did not make sure that this is reviewed and eventually provided to Netanyahu’s lawyers.

Further, from a professional perspective, sources close to Mandelblit would say that in these cases more than in any other case, set procedures must be observed so there are no allegations of bias.

This means that first the prosecution staff makes a recommendation to Nitzan, who makes a recommendation to Mandelblit, who only at that point decides.

It is becoming increasingly likely that the man who was accused of being too close to Netanyahu, having worked with or for Netanyahu in a number of positions over several years, and who has strong personal admiration for his abilities, will paradoxically be the one who will fulfill a duty to take him down.

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