Israel: Graft, politics and a timid prosecutor

Roy Isacowitz on the intersection between Benjamin Netanyahu's legal and political travails

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s seemingly inextirpable prime minister, will have his pre-indictment hearing before the country’s attorney-general, Avichai Mendelblit, next Wednesday. Netanyahu faces three charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

The hearing is a courtesy granted at the AG’s discretion to prominent individuals facing indictment on criminal charges. It follows Mendelblit’s announcement in February that he intends to indict Netanyahu on the three charges pending a pre-indictment hearing. Initially scheduled for July, the hearing was postponed until October after Mendelblit came under strenuous pressure from Netanyahu and his lawyers.

It is widely believed that Netanyahu’s objective in requesting the delay was to gain sufficient time to weld together a parliamentary majority that would grant him immunity from prosecution – as well as pass a law preventing the High Court from ruling on Knesset legislation, i.e. from overturning the mooted immunity law.

As we know, the premier failed to establish the government he wanted after the election in April and is unlikely to succeed now, following a second election this month.

As part of the pre-indictment hearing process, the suspect is required to submit a document outlining the legal basis of his not-guilty plea and providing appropriate evidence. The document provided by Netanyahu last Wednesday, the last date on which it could be submitted, was all of one page long and bereft of evidence.

"We regret that instead of complying with this directive (submitting the suspect's arguments in writing prior to the hearing), you have found it appropriate to submit a very short document with no actual content," Mendelblit's office wrote in a letter published Thursday.

At the same time as he submitted his non-evidence, Netanyahu circulated a video on the internet in which he demanded that the hearing be held in public and broadcast live. It was a brazen demand, to put it mildly, given that the hearing is a courtesy offered to a suspect, has no public dimension and is not even attended by the suspect himself. He is represented by his attorneys.

The video ploy was a transparent attempt by Netanyahu, a narcissistic lover of his own voice and persuasive powers, to inject himself into a proceedings to which he wasn’t invited and to turn them into a political circus.

As expected, Mandelblit rejected the demand, saying that "The purpose of the hearing is to provide an opportunity for a suspect who wishes to present their claims to law enforcement agencies, and to persuade the certified body that there is no justification to indict them. The hearing is not intended to persuade the public."

Absent any further tricks by Netanyahu – and experience indicates that trickery is seldom absent when Netanyahu is involved – the hearing will go ahead on Wednesday. Given that the premier has not submitted any substantial arguments or evidence in his own defense (other than flatly denying his guilt), it is expected that Mendelblit will go ahead and announce the indictments. But there are at least two potential sticking points.

The first is Mendelblit himself. A former Chief Military Advocate General with the rank of general – among other things, he was responsible for the army’s timorous and futile self-investigations after the 2009 invasion of Gaza – Mendelblit was appointed Cabinet Secretary by Netanyahu in 2013 and Attorney General in 2016.

Critics were quick to label him as Netanyahu’s “poodle,” charged with closing the cases against the prime minister. The police and prosecutorial investigations dragged on for more than two years and appeared to be at a dead-end. Where Mendelblit found the cojones to finally announce the pending indictments against Netanyahu has never been fully explained. It is likely that his anger at the arrogance and shamelessness of the prime minister and his allies – who regularly abused the police, the prosecution and the AG himself – eventually prevailed over the natural timidity of the man.

Whether he will be able to maintain that new-found spunk during the hearing and in face of additional antics from Netanyahu is open to question. My feeling is that he will. Netanyahu’s failure (relatively speaking) in the recent election and the clear public groundswell against the premier have weakened him considerably. He is no longer the invincible ogre that he was even a month ago. For the first time in his government career, Mendelblit can look Netanyahu in the face without quailing.

The second sticking point is one of timing and urgency. Mendelblit is a slow and methodical worker. That was apparent in the tardiness with which he pursued investigations in the army, as well as in his pursuit of investigations as AG – and not only those concerning Netanyahu. He is capable of temporizing for weeks, if not months, before announcing Netanyahu’s fate.

With President Reuven Rivlin having – unwisely and inexplicably – given Netanyahu the mandate to establish a new government, the one thing the country doesn’t have is time. An indicted Netanyahu would be disqualified from serving as prime minister – though there is a lacuna in the applicable law, which he will no doubt exploit, if necessary – but, in his current, pre-indictment state, he can, and will, do whatever is required to form a government and pass an immunity law. With three charges already hanging over him, legality might not be a major concern.

Mendelblit would do well to pick up the pace and settle the issue as soon as possible. Netanyahu has been in office for 10 years, suspected of corruption for most of that period and a named person of interest for over three years. Less than a year ago, his wife was convicted in a plea deal of misusing state funds and fined.

Israel is tired of the Netanyahus. Leaving Benjamin Netanyahu free to continue polluting the nation’s politics is clearly not in the country’s interests. Avichai Mendelblit is the only person who can put an end to the Netanyahu era.