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Netanyahu indicted for corruption in three cases, in first for a sitting PM

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Tuesday filed the indictment against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust with the Jerusalem District Court.

“The indictment was filed a short time ago… as is required by law,” Mandelblit’s office said.

The move marks the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister will face criminal charges, casting a heavy shadow over Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, his legacy and his ongoing attempts to remain in power.

Responding to Mandelblit’s decision, “sources close to the prime minister” accused the attorney general of conducting a witch hunt against Netanyahu, a Likud spokesperson said in a statement.

“If anyone still had any doubt that Prime Minister Netanyahu is the target of obsessive persecution, he was now given further clear and sharp proof,” the sources were quoted as saying. “The eagerness to file the unfounded indictment against the prime minister is so great that they could not wait even one day until after the historic summit in Washington, one of the most important in the history of the state.”

According to the text of the indictment, released by the Justice Ministry in November, Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000.

The filing of charges came hours after Netanyahu announced Tuesday morning that he was withdrawing his request for parliamentary immunity from the pending indictment in the corruption cases against him.

Netanyahu’s announcement came hours before the Knesset was set to form a committee to debate — and almost certainly reject — his immunity request.

In a Facebook post, the premier denounced the “immunity circus” taking place while he was in Washington on a “historic mission.”

“During this fateful time for the people of Israel, while I am in the US on a historic mission to shape Israel’s permanent borders and ensure our security for future generations, another Knesset episode is expected to begin in the immunity circus,” the prime minister wrote.

“Since I was not given due process, because all the rules of the Knesset were trampled on, and since the results of the procedure were pre-dictated without proper discussion, I decided not to allow this dirty game to continue,” Netanyahu added.

The text of Netanyahu’s Facebook post was included in the official letter sent by his lawyers to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein requesting that he withdraw the immunity bid.

The date for Tuesday’s plenum discussion was set before the premier announced he would travel to Washington for the unveiling of US President Donald Trump’s long-awaited peace plan, whose timing, announced last week, has been criticized in Israel as an attempt to rescue Netanyahu from the immunity proceedings.

By withdrawing his request, the prime minister avoided the spectacle of defeat in the Knesset immunity process. Rather than battling for his immunity in the run-up to the elections, however, he will now face the electorate as a defendant in three criminal cases.

Netanyahu had reportedly originally agonized over asking for immunity, which undercut his earlier defense that he would ultimately be found innocent of the charges against him.

The premier’s main election rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, met Trump on Monday before traveling back to Israel to take part in the planned Knesset deliberation on forming a House Committee to debate Netanyahu’s immunity request.

Responding to the prime minister’s announcement, Gantz said Tuesday that Netanyahu cannot run the country while standing trial in the three three cases against him.

“Netanyahu is going to trial — we must move forward. Israel’s citizens have a clear choice: A prime minister who will work for them or a prime minister working for himself, Gantz said in a statement.

“No one can run a state and at the same time manage three serious criminal cases for bribery, fraud and breach of trust,” he added, citing the charges against the prime minister.

According to the indictment, the prime minister “damaged the image of the public service and public trust in it,” and is suspected of abusing his position and status, and of knowingly “taking a bribe as a public servant in exchange for actions related to your position.”

The prime minister has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in all three cases, and has alleged that the investigations against him are a “witch hunt” involving the left, the media and the police relentlessly pressuring a “weak” attorney general.

In Case 1000, involving accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for favors, Mandelblit charged Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust — the latter being a somewhat murkily defined offense relating to an official violating the trust the public has placed in him.

According to the indictment in that case, Netanyahu “damaged the image of public service and the public’s trust in it, in that while serving in public positions, and foremost as prime minister… maintained for years an inappropriate relationship with billionaire benefactors.”

In Case 2000, involving accusations Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken the circulation of a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth, Mandelblit charged the premier with fraud and breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery. The case is said to have been a contentious one in Mandelblit’s office, with many prosecution officials reportedly arguing that Netanyahu should be charged with bribery, while Mandelblit considered not charging the prime minister at all.

The indictment says that Netanyahu and Mozes “recognized that the one had the ability to promote the other’s interest” in the run-up to the 2015 elections and discussed such possibilities.

“According to suspicions, in your actions while performing your duties you have committed acts that amount to breach of trust, and have caused substantial harm to the integrity [of the position] and the public’s trust,” it said.

In Case 4000, widely seen as the most serious against the premier, Netanyahu stands accused of having advanced regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. In that case Mandelblit is charging Netanyahu and Elovitch with bribery.

The indictment says the relationship between Netanyahu and Elovitch was “based on give and take,” and the prime minister’s actions benefiting Elovitch netted the businessman benefits to the tune of some NIS 1.8 billion ($500 million) in the period 2012-2017. In exchange, Elovitch’s Walla news site “published [Netanyahu’s] political messages that [he] wished to convey to the public,” according to the indictment.

“[He] took benefits… while knowing [he was] taking a bribe as a public servant in exchange for actions related to your position,” it alleged.

The prime minister’s actions, wrote state prosecutors, “were carried out amid a conflict of interests, the weighing of outside considerations relating to his own and his family’s interests, and involved the corrupting of the public servants reporting to him.”