Friday, October 23, 2020

Israel: State prosecutors to recommend PM Netanyahu stand trial for bribery and fraud charges​

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State prosecutors have begun drafting a legal opinion recommending Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stand trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, according to a television report on Thursday.

Weeks after Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearing, in which the premier’s attorneys sought to counter the looming indictment, prosecutors were urging Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to keep the original proposed charges intact, namely bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the so-called Case 4000, as well as additional fraud and breach of trust charges in cases 1000 and 2000, the Channel 13 report said.

Mandeblit on Sunday will begin consultations with state prosecutors to make a decision on whether to indict Netanyahu in the three corruption charges against him. He aims to make the decision by mid-November, Channel 12 reported earlier this month. Other assessments suggested a decision would be made by year’s end.

Responding to the Thursday night television report, Netanyahu described it as “another tendentious leak that severely impairs the public confidence in the [legal] system.”

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“Only in a field trial do they publish the conclusions before discussing the facts and arguments,” he added.

State prosecutors and Netanyahu’s lawyers earlier this month wrapped up four days of pre-indictment hearings over the pending corruption charges against the prime minister.

Following the hearing, Channels 12 and 13 both quoted unnamed sources saying some on Mandelblit’s team are inclined to drop the most serious charge, of bribery in Case 4000, though both reports stressed that the decision is ultimately Mandelblit’s.

The attorney general published the draft charges at length in February.

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The Channel 12 report said that Netanyahu’s lawyers had not managed to present anything new in cases 1000 and 2000, but in Case 4000, the lawyers had presented an “alternate narrative,” which Mandelblit was considering. It did not give any details on this “alternate narrative.”

Channel 13 said there was “a tendency” among some in the state prosecution team toward fraud and breach of trust charges only in Case 4000, dropping the bribery charge. Channel 13 also reported, however, that the “senior” prosecutors remain convinced that a bribery charge is appropriate.

Case 4000 concerns allegations that Netanyahu pushed regulatory decisions financially benefiting Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications group, in return for ongoing positive coverage from Bezeq’s Walla news site.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of illicitly receiving gifts such as champagne, cigars and jewelry valued at some NIS 700,000 ($201,000) from billionaire benefactors Arnon Milchan and James Packer, and allegedly reciprocating in Milchan’s case with various forms of assistance.

In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of agreeing with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth. The agreement was never implemented.

Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, has repeatedly claimed that he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media, the left, police and the state prosecution, designed to oust him from power.

The legal woes come as Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival, with the country’s unprecedented second election of the year again failing to provide him with a clear victory. In last month’s election, neither Netanyahu nor his chief challenger, Benny Gantz, secured the required parliamentary majority to form a new government. Both men have expressed support for a unity government as a way out of the deadlock, but they remain far apart on who should lead it and what smaller parties would join them.

Netanyahu earlier this week informed President Reuven Rivlin he could not form a government, prompting the president to give Gantz 28 days to try.

His failure to build a coalition would likely trigger a third election in less than a year.

Israeli law requires cabinet ministers to step down if charged with a crime. But the law is vague for sitting prime ministers, meaning Netanyahu could theoretically remain in the post if he is indicted, though he would likely face calls to resign.

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