Both sides claim gains over bribery charge in PM hearings

Spin-doctoring in full gear as pre-indictment hearings enter third day

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit (R) (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit (R)
Day three of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s long-awaited series of pre-indictment hearings before Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit was set for Sunday morning with multiple parties already furiously engaged in spin-doctoring the proceedings to date.
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.
Last week the first two hearings were held on Wednesday and Thursday, with each hearing running more than 11 hours.
Over the weekend, 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 the attorney-general was taking careful notes in his notebook 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 concluded anything, and the expectation is that he will not decide until after he has spent a number of weeks debating the cases with his top advisers following the pre-indictment hearings.
On Thursday morning, Netanyahu lawyer Yossi Ashkenazi said that he was happy with the attention that Mandelblit was giving both to their new evidence and to the new perspectives with which they were framing the already-disclosed evidence.
Late Wednesday evening, Netanyahu lawyer Amit Hadad left Mandelblit’s office proclaiming, “we are surprising them,” with new legal arguments and perspectives on disputed facts that the prosecution did not expect.
Both lawyers expressed confidence that all the charges would be dropped, while refusing to answer whether their best-case realistic scenario was to reduce the charges against Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s lawyers had earlier rejected any talk of a plea bargain.
Throughout Wednesday, Netanyahu’s battery of lawyers issued a series of statements in his defense, while Mandelblit’s team remained silent both Wednesday and Thursday.
At the Justice Ministry’s offices early Wednesday, Netanyahu’s lawyer Ram Caspi tried to get on the prosecution’s good side in light of Netanyahu’s history of publicly attacking some of the lead prosecution officials, who recommended his indictment in February.
“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.”
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 still underway.
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 they can run the campaign without a criminal cloud.
These political-legal implications are not the only ones, however.
Reduced charges could move down any future trial from the District Court to the Magistrate’s Court. Anecdotally, the latter is viewed as friendlier to politicians, since judges there may seek promotion to the District Court, with politicians’ support. In contrast, most District Court judges recognize they are unlikely to be promoted to the Supreme Court, and view themselves as having reached their senior post.
Netanyahu’s two main targets heading into the pre-indictment hearings were to try to convince Mandelblit to drop Case 2000, and to get the charges in Case 4000 reduced from bribery to breach of public trust.
Mandelblit already reduced Case 1000 from a bribery case (as recommended by both the police and the state prosecution team) to the lesser charge of breach of trust. A bribery charge means the case would be heard in the District Court. Breach of trust would descend to the friendlier Magistrate’s Court. Thus, the key for Netanyahu’s fate may be to get the bribery charge in Case 4000 reduced to breach of trust.
There are several scenarios where Netanyahu may still find himself before the Supreme Court, with the justices having to decide whether to force a sitting prime minister to resign who is under indictment but who has not yet been convicted at trial.
No one knows how the Supreme Court would rule, and the highest legal minds suggest such a decision could go either way.
If Netanyahu’s lawyers convince Mandelblit to reduce the bribery charge to breach of trust, this would probably end any realistic probability of the Supreme Court intervening.
The pre-indictment hearings are due to continue Monday as well and may even continue a day or so beyond Yom Kippur this week.