Pre-indictment hearing day three moves from Case 4000 to Cases 1000, 2000
Key prosecutor skips hearing
By YONAH JEREMY BOB
Day three of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearings before Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit marked the switch from focusing on Case 4000 to Cases 1000 and 2000. Initial reports were that Case 1000 would be discussed Sunday and Case 2000 on Monday, but later reports indicated the reverse.Besides the switch from Case 4000 to Case 1000, a controversy developed on Sunday over the absence of the prosecution team’s lead lawyer, Liat Ben-Ari.The Justice Ministry confirmed that Ben-Ari had prior commitments, which was the reason she was absent.However, Ben-Ari is the lioness of the prosecution who convicted former prime minister Ehud Olmert, and as lead prosecutor for the case, it was unprecedented for her to miss such a key hearing.While the ministry played down her absence by noting that her staff and Mandelblit – the ultimate arbiter – were present, her absence could have much greater significance.Ben-Ari had recommended that Mandelblit indict Netanyahu for bribery in all three cases but the attorney-general overruled her, announcing an intent to charge for bribery only in Case 4000, while charging the more minor offenses of breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000.Since Sunday and Monday are the days for hearing Netanyahu’s lawyers’ arguments for Cases 1000 and 2000, it could appear that either Ben-Ari is uninterested in their arguments on those cases, or that she and Mandelblit have such large disagreements about those cases that she found a reason to absent herself.AdvertisementIf any of these scenarios are true, it could impact how the legal establishment, Netanyahu’s team, and any later court perceive Mandelblit’s final decision.Netanyahu’s lawyers lashed out at Ben-Ari on Sunday night, saying it showed that she was not giving them a chance at the pre-indictment hearings.Before entering Mandelblit’s office on Sunday, Netanyahu lawyer Amit Hadad told the press stridently that, “Today we will finish our arguments regarding Case 4000 and move on to the other cases. When we complete our arguments, I have no doubt that there will be no choice other than to close the cases. We believe this and expect this.”Over the weekend, multiple parties furiously engaged in spin-doctoring the proceedings to date. Leaks emerged from the state prosecution team that Netanyahu’s lawyers had not convinced Mandelblit to drop the crucial bribery charge in Case 4000, while leaks emerged from the defense side that Mandelblit was taking careful notes regarding some defense arguments and appeared to be seriously considering changing the charge.Meanwhile, there was no sign from Mandelblit’s office itself that he has decided anything, and the expectation is that he will not decide until after he has spent a number of weeks debating the cases with his senior advisers following the hearings.All of Netanyahu’s lawyers have expressed confidence that all the charges would be dropped, while refusing to answer whether, realistically, their best-case scenario was to reduce the charges against Netanyahu.They have also rejected any talk of a plea bargain.The first two hearings were held last week on Wednesday and Thursday, with each hearing running over 11 hours.As he entered the Justice Ministry’s offices last Wednesday, Netanyahu’s lawyer Ram Caspi tried to maneuver to get on the good side of the prosecution in light of some of Netanyahu’s history of publicly attacking some of the lead prosecution officials.“I have complete faith not only in the legal establishment in Israel, but also in those who stand at its head, which includes State Attorney Shai Nitzan and Deputy State Attorney Liat Ben-Ari,” Caspi said. “I have no doubt that during the hearing, the attorney-general will form his recommendations in a professional and thorough manner while disregarding the background noise, the protests and media pressure. I treat these hearings with the utmost importance.”These hearings over Case 4000 (the Bezeq-Walla Affair), Case 1000 (the Illegal Gifts Affair) and Case 2000 (the Yediot Aharonot-Israel Hayom Affair) are Netanyahu’s last opportunity to head off a final indictment decision that could determine his political fortunes and the ongoing attempts to form a new coalition.With Case 4000, the goal of Netanyahu’s legal team is likely not to erase the charges but to convince Mandelblit to water them down.Presuming that Mandelblit issues a final decision to indict Netanyahu, it is likely that this decision will emerge as negotiations over forming a new government are under way.This means that those final charges could heavily impact whether Netanyahu, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz or a new leader from Likud who pushes out Netanyahu becomes the next prime minister, and also influence any rotation agreement.If the country goes to a third election within a year, the final charges could end Netanyahu’s political career, possibly even more abruptly, as the Likud may dispatch him so the party can run the campaign without a criminal cloud.Case 1000 revolves around allegations that Netanyahu illegally received gifts from billionaire Arnon Milchan, and the prime minister’s defense that these were gifts between friends and violated no law.Netanyahu allegedly received NIS 267,254 in cigars, NIS 199,819 of champagne, and NIS 10,900 on jewelry for his wife, Sara, from Milchan.The prosecution said in February that Netanyahu knew about all of this, including the gifts for Sara, despite his statements to the contrary.In addition, Netanyahu also allegedly summoned IDF Maj.-Gen. Eitan Dangot to provide Milchan with an IDF helicopter to fly to Jordan for business. Netanyahu’s lawyers have told The Jerusalem Post that this was for businessman Ratan Tata to advance deals with Jordan, not for Milchan. But the prosecution says Netanyahu also met with Milchan’s accountant, Ze’ev Feldman, to ensure that the business plans were to benefit Milchan.Late in the investigation, evidence emerged that Netanyahu tried to have a law passed that would get Milchan potentially millions or even hundreds of millions of shekels in tax exemptions as a returning Israeli citizen.The police have said that Netanyahu even leaned on then-finance minister Yair Lapid to push the law through, but that Lapid or his team blocked the law as being against state interests.Netanyahu’s lawyers say that he was trying to promote foreign investment by Milchan into Israel, not for personal gain.In Case 2000, Yediot Aharonot was losing millions of shekels to Israel Hayom.The prosecution said in February that Yediot publisher Arnon Mozes allegedly asked Netanyahu to use his power to eliminate or reduce Israel Hayom so as to get those millions back.In exchange, Yediot would allegedly not merely give the prime minister a favorable interview, but entirely shift its coverage – a shift that could be decisive whenever an election came around. The value in such a shift in coverage could be viewed as priceless.Mandelblit said this could not be bribery but only breach of trust, because unlike Case 4000, the alleged bribery scheme fell through and never took place. He has viewed proving attempted bribery and intent to bribe without an actual transaction as extremely difficult.In addition, Mandelblit has been concerned about interfering with politicians’ relations with the media and free-speech rights.Netanyahu said the negotiations with Mozes were an elaborate act, and expressed frustration that other politicians involved in similar schemes have not been criminally probed.Though this same concern existed in Case 4000, there Mandelblit is expected to indict Netanyahu for bribery anyway, because he views the Bezeq-Yes merger, with hundreds of millions of shekels going into Shaul Elovitch’s pocket, as trumping the concern of respecting political-media relations.The pre-indictment hearings are due to continue on Monday, and may even continue a day or so beyond Yom Kippur.