JERUSALEM —Israel’s attorney general recommended Thursday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted for fraud, bribery and breach of trust, the Israeli leader’s lawyers said, casting uncertainty over his political future just weeks before he faces reelection.
Netanyahu has strongly denied the allegations against him and will have the opportunity to present his defense at a hearing before any final decision by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to issue an indictment. But the recommendation indicates that Israel’s top legal authority believes there is enough evidence to proceed with a trial.
Mandelblit said Netanyahu should be charged with fraud and breach of trust in connection with Case 1000, the prime minister’s lawyers said. The case centers around allegations that he and his wife, Sara, received gifts of cigars and jewelry worth around $280,000 in exchange for political favors. The billionaire benefactors allegedly included Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, whose film credits include “Fight Club” and “Pretty Woman,” and Australian business executive James Packer.
When the Israeli police issued a recommendation last year to indict Netanyahu, they said he was suspected of promoting the extension of a tax exemption for residents returning to Israel after 10 years, which would have benefited Milchan. Netanyahu is also accused of working to help Milchan obtain his visa to the United States by lobbying senior U.S. officials.
Mandelblit also recommended that the prime minister be charged in connection with to Case 2000, which centers on a deal he allegedly sought with Arnon Mozes, publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper and Ynet news website. Under the deal, Netanyahu was to advance legislation to weaken one of Mozes’s competitors in return for favorable coverage.
In connection with yet another case, called Case 4000, the attorney general recommended that the prime minister should also be indicted . Netanyahu is accused of easing business regulations for Shaul Elovitch, majority shareholder of Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications company, in exchange for favorable coverage of him and his wife on the popular news website, Walla! , also owned by Elovitch.
Israeli police have said they had evidence that from 2014 to 2017, while Netanyahu served as minister of communications as well as prime minister, he intervened with regulators to help Bezeq merge with another large Israeli communications company. In exchange, Elovitch instructed journalists at Walla to provide favorable coverage of the prime minister and his wife, according to the police statement.
Journalists, including senior editors from the website, have spoken publicly about being ordered to change headlines and photographs and remove or add content that boosted the prime minister’s image.
Ahead of Mandelblit’s announcement, Netanyahu’s lawyers released a statement on Wednesday calling the charges of bribery “ridiculous.”
“Prime Minister Netanyahu received nothing from Elovitch and gave him nothing. Walla’s coverage was negative and intensified before the elections,” they wrote. They said the prime minister had acted “flawlessly and that “this tower of cards would soon collapse.”
Israel’s leader for a total of more than 13 years, Netanyahu, or Bibi as he is commonly known, has become virtually synonymous with Israel’s premiership. But Mandelblit’s move could heighten the chances of ouster.
Netanyahu has framed the allegations as a part of a left-wing conspiracy to unseat him, because his opponents can’t win at the ballot box. His decision to call elections early, bringing them forward to April 9 from later in this year, was widely seen by political analysts as an attempt to get to the polls before his legal woes caught up with him.
Earlier this month, his lawyers requested 60 additional witnesses be questioned, which would have stretched the process on until after the vote, but Mandelblit said he had spoken to everyone needed.
On Monday, Netanyahu released a short video of him appealing to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to make public documents he said would prove his innocence in Case 4000. He said these would show he committed no illegal activity in his dealings with Elovitch and that all the decisions made while he served as communications minister adhered to legal procedure and were taken in consultation with the proper authorities.
Shaked responded by saying she could not intervene in the prosecutions work.
Israeli police last year recommended that Netanyahu be indicted on charges including fraud and breach of trust in relation to the three corruption cases. Several of his top aides have turned state’s witness as the corruption allegations have mounted, agreeing to give evidence in return for immunity.
In the Israeli justice system, the power to issue indictments rests with the attorney general.
Mandelblit faced a weighty decision whether to move ahead with the indictment process before the election, because this leaves him open to accusations of interfering with the electoral process. But waiting could have invited criticism for withholding crucial information from the public ahead of the polls.
Netanyahu has argued that Mandelblit’s move is undemocratic, since it means voters will go to the polls having heard the charges but without the prime minister having had a chance to fully put forward his defense. He has compared it to cutting off the arm of a man for theft, only for to be acquitted later. “Can anyone give him back his arm? Can anyone give you back the elections?” he said in a video he released earlier this year.
Some opinion polls have projected that Netanyahu’s legal woes may cost him as many as four seats. Last week, his main challenger, former army chief of staff Benny Gantz, joined forces with another Netanyahu opponent, Yair Lapid. Jointly known as the Blue and White party, they are now polling neck and neck with Netanyahu’s ruling Likud faction.
Political observers say that even if Netanyahu’s party wins the largest share of seats, his legal troubles could make it harder for him to build the coalition he needs to govern.
It is an uphill battle for any party to topple the Israeli leader, but an indictment could change things, said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli political opinions expert who has worked on five campaigns, describing it as a “monkey wrench”.
“Will he come under pressure to resign? There’s a portion of his base that believe there will be nothing because there is nothing. But how many people will continue to believe that? It’s hard to predict,” she said.
The prime minister has said he will not quit even if he is indicted, and under Israeli law he is not required to do so until he has been convicted and the appeal process has been exhausted.
“There will be nothing because there is nothing,” is the phrase he had often repeated.
But there is legal precedent of ministers being forced to step down after being charged.
If he is indicted, it is almost certain that Netanyahu’s rivals or civil society organizations will file legal petitions calling on him to relinquish office based on those rulings, said Guy Lurie, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute .
Legal experts say that Netanyahu’s defense lawyers could draw out the hearing process for months, and it is possible that Mandelblit ultimately will decide not to proceed.
If Netanyahu survives until July, he will become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, overtaking the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion .
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