The fourth and final day of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearings before Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit came to a close after around 10 hours.
Mandelblit is expected to decide whether to issue a final indictment against the prime minister before December 15, when State Attorney Shai Nitzan steps down, but there have been some reports that the decision could come down even as early as next month.
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.
The attorney-general heard arguments from Netanyahu’s legal team about Case 4000 during the first three days, while the third and fourth days were mostly focused on Cases 2000 and 1000.
There were contradicting leaks throughout the hearings on whether Netanyahu’s lawyers had surprised Mandelblit with new arguments, or whether they had just presented alibis and alternate narratives to how the prosecution viewed the prime minister’s actions.
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 downplayed 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 were 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.
If 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.
The prime minister’s lawyers have also rejected any talk of a plea bargain throughout, though Netanyahu’s former lawyer, Jacob Weinroth, now deceased, had likely explored this path at a much earlier stage.
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 worth of 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 Maj.-Gen. Eitan Dangot to provide Milchan with a military 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.
Case 4000 is the most serious case, as Netanyahu is charged with bribery.