Starting today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will receive the opportunity to defend himself against a series of severe accusations of fraud, breach in trust and bribery that have been following him for the last couple of years.
The pre-indictment hearings, which will last four days in total at the prime minister’s request, span three different cases labeled cases 1000, 2000 and 4000. Ten to twelve of Netanyahu’s defense lawyers will face approximately twenty Justice Ministry officials in order to defend the prime minister against the intention of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to indict him for fraud, breach in trust and, in one case, bribery.
The first two days of the hearing will concern case 4000, about a quid-pro-quo agreement between Netanyahu and media mogul Shaul Elovitch, owner of Eurocom Group and former owner of Bezeq. The other two cases, 1000 and 2000, will be discussed coming Sunday and Monday. Case 4000 has the most impact on the prime minister’s future and image, which is why it requires more time to be discussed.
Details of the accusations
Case 1000 centers around suspicions that Netanyahu received hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of gifts in the form of boxes of champagne, cigars and other such luxury goods from Hollywood tycoon Arnon Milchan. According to the draft indictment Netanyahu “acted while manning public roles in favor of Milchan in numerous personal and business affairs, while he was in a grave conflict of interests between the common good and his personal commitment to Milchan.”
According to Netanyahu it’s permissible to receive gifts from friends. Another line of defense is that, apparently, his wife Sara may have asked Milchan personally to arrange the presents without his knowledge.
Case 2000 treats the Prime Minister’s involvement in promoting legislation that would disadvantage the free daily newspaper Hayom, in the interest of their main competitor Yedioth Ahronoth and its news site Ynet, lead by publisher Arnon Mozes. Yedioth Ahronoth is Israel’s best-selling newspaper and the question at hand is if Netanyahu’s actions constitute a conflict of interests, since Mozes allegedly promised Netanyahu favourable coverage in return for the legislation.
Netanyahu’s rather salient and wavering reply is that both Mozes and he were only trying to manipulate one another and neither of them had the intention of following through with the proposal.
Case 4000, considered the most painful of the three, handles the suspicions that Netanyahu acted in the interest of former Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch that helped him to profit by more than a billion shekels. In return for his services, as with case 2000, Netanyahu was promised favourable coverage on the Walla website, which is under Elovitch’s direction. This case was first brought to light by Haaretz in 2015, when Netanyahu was Minister of Communications as well as Prime Minister. This is the only case of the three in which he faces charges of bribery, as well as fraud and breach of trust.
Netanyahu’s defense in this case is that there isn’t any clear evidence of his involvement in Bezeq’s profits and the subsequent media coverage. Also, he claims that the Walla coverage wasn’t beneficial to him at all and, according to him, no one has ever been accused of bribery for receiving good press.
In case of indictment
If Mendelblit decides to proceed with the indictment, it could take months before the actual trial begins. If Netanyahu is still active as Prime Minister at that time, he wouldn’t necessarily have to resign. Israeli law allows a Prime Minister to remain in office during legal proceedings in which he is being accused of certain crimes, and he can even remain in position during potential appeal trials. He only needs to step down if ultimately convicted.
Meanwhile, talks about the formation of a new Israeli government are facing a setback, since Netanyahu’s leading opponent, Benny Gantz, has stated that he will not serve in a cabinet led by a prime minister who faces indictment.
Netanyahu’s supporters have already stated that they would back parliamentary immunity from prosecution for the Prime Minister. However, it is unclear if such a strategy would be viable, since Likud has lost its parliamentary majority during the two most recent elections and nobody knows if enough lawmakers would support the immunity.
The Prime Minister himself utters confident language on the hearings, claiming that the cases will “collapse” for lack of clear evidence and that the whole ordeal is nothing more than a glorified witch-hunt by the media and the political left to purge him out of Israeli government. Nevertheless, should he be convicted, he will face severe punishment, since bribery carries a sentence of up to ten years in prison and/ or a fine. Fraud and breach of trust both carry a prison sentence of up to three years.