The bribery charges could sound the legal death knell for Netanyahu

Bribery requires a high and clear level of intent and a demonstrated quid pro quo, making it a weightier charge.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Why is Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit’s bribery charge against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the equivalent of a legal death knell?
Obviously, we are not talking about any physical danger; but all along, the main hope of Netanyahu has been to get rid of all bribery charges.
Until Thursday night, there was reason to think he might succeed.
Mandelblit had already dropped two of the three bribery charges that were filed against Netanyahu when he had made his initial decision on February 28. This despite the police and the state prosecution, including State Attorney Shai Nitzan, both recommending back then indicting Netanyahu for bribery in all three cases against him.
There was only the remaining bribery charge as of February 28 and it was in Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla Affair.
During the October pre-indictment hearings, Netanyahu’s lawyers worked hard to tear apart the state prosecution’s key witnesses: Shlomo Filber and Nir Hefetz.
There really was no scenario expected in which Netanyahu would not be indicted in Case 4000. Two state’s witnesses who had been his close aides were pointing to Netanyahu, and a mountain of text messages and other documentary support were also evidence against him.
The sole hope otherwise was if Netanyahu’s lawyers could sufficiently impugn Filber and Hefetz’s credibility so that the bribery charge would be reduced to breach of public trust.
Put simply, bribery requires a high and clear level of intent and a demonstrated quid pro quo.
Breach of trust merely requires showing that a public servant took actions in his official capacity in situations where he was in a clear conflict of interest that could lead to fraud or some other crime.
The different levels of intent and proof required indicate that sentences for bribery often involve prison time – former prime minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced to 18 months (originally six years at the trial court level) for bribery – whereas sentences for breach of trust can involve jail sentences of a few months or even doing community service.
Most importantly, there have been indications that Mandelblit believed that a bribery charge would lead to Netanyahu’s political or legal downfall.
In other words, if accused of bribery in a final indictment, either his Likud or other right-wing party supporters would abandon him, or the High Court of Justice would dethrone him if he tried to stay in office.
The dry law of the Knesset regarding the prime minister only says that he must resign once convicted and having exhausted all appeals.
However, for over two decades the High Court has applied a standard that expects all ministers to resign if they are indicted, based on the idea that they cannot maintain the public’s faith in carrying out their duties honestly once indicted.
Breach of trust is amorphous. Many lawyers do not really know what it means, and all the more so the general public.
It is hard to imagine the High Court tossing Netanyahu out of office before being convicted, if the only charge he faced were breach of trust.
He might have to resign if convicted, but that would be a year or two down the road. A veritable eternity in politics.
On the other hand, it is equally hard to imagine that the High Court would simply let him stay in office once charged with bribery.
SO BRIBERY was the big game.
Therefore it was crucial for Netanyahu to try to show that both Filber and Hefetz had massively shifted their stories to police before and after they cut their deals.
In particular, there has been a war to claim that Hefetz was blackmailed by police through embarrassing details related to a third-party woman that was not related to the cases.
In addition, it was crucial for Netanyahu to try to show that Hefetz did not have a hold on the details and dates he was speaking about, to such an extent that his memory could not be trusted.
At every turn that there was damaging evidence about the prime minister, it was critical for him to distance himself from the allegations and to show how the involved were acting independently of his wishes.
So why did Mandelblit indict for bribery anyway?
It seems that whether Netanyahu hurt Hefetz’s credibility, Mandelblit still maintains that Filber plus the rest of the evidence will be enough.
There are two narratives that attempt to explain why Filber turned against Netanyahu in February 2018, an act that was an earthquake leading to an avalanche of changes.
It changed Mandelblit from a doubter into supporting indicting Netanyahu for bribery.
It led Hefetz to switch in a matter of days from staunch loyalist to becoming one of the primary state’s witnesses against the prime minister.
Ultimately, it was probably the point that transformed the prime minister’s political and legal fate.
From July 2017 to February 2018, Filber denied wrongdoing, and remained so loyal to the prime minister that even in November 2017, when it was announced that he would be indicted, and with no charges against Netanyahu, he did not turn state’s witness.
Based on leaked portions of Filber’s testimony to police right before he turned, Filber had accused the police of “a million man race” to bring down Netanyahu by grabbing at anyone who was close to him.
Filber told police that he and Netanyahu had done nothing wrong, and accused police of trying to blackmail him into turning on Netanyahu for no reason.
It seems Netanyahu’s lawyers failed to derail the prosecution’s narrative about Filber.
When Filber turned state’s witness, it was leaked that what turned him was when he listened to recordings of Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua speaking to Walla and Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch about the scheme to skew coverage positively in the prime minister’s favor.
According to a Channel 12 report, Filber confessed to police right after turning state’s witness that it was as if a cloud had been lifted, and that he could tell the truth for the first time in years.
Filber said that he knew from the start that the prime minister’s orders to make policy changes in favor of Elovitch were a “national disaster,” but that he went along with it because he was caught up in the glory of his new title and power.
The final indictment describes a meeting between Filber and Netanyahu in June 2015 in which the prime minister allegedly gave Filber his orders to facilitate the media bribery scheme from the regulatory side. The indictment also mentions Filber’s alleged involvement in influencing Walla coverage in Netanyahu’s favor.
It appears that this proved the bribery case to Mandelblit, and this is what will end Netanyahu’s premiership – whether soon as part of the indictment, or later, if he is convicted.