JERUSALEM, Israel. — Charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust have been unveiled against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in three separate corruption cases, the Attorney General announced on Thursday evening, marking the first time in Israel’s history that a sitting PM faces indictment in criminal investigations.
During a final pre-indictment hearing last month, Netanyahu’s high-powered legal team tried to convince prosecutors to close the cases, including the most serious charge of bribery. But Avichai Mandelblit, a Netanyahu appointee who once served as his cabinet secretary, is moving forward. “It is a very sad day for Israel and for me personally,” said Mandelblit, adding that the decision to indict “is not a matter of politics, of right and left.”
Speaking in Jerusalem on Thursday night, Netanyahu described the charges as “an attempted coup against a Prime Minister” and vowed to continue to lead the country.
Israel’s deadlocked parliament means that a formal indictment may still be months away. Nevertheless, the charges are a significant blow to Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, who has held office for a total of more than 13 years. He has proclaimed his innocence ever since the criminal investigations became public nearly three years ago.
As the investigations advanced, Netanyahu refused repeated calls from opposition lawmakers to step down. Unlike a government minister, or ordinary lawmaker, who must resign his position if indicted, a Prime Minister is under no such obligation. Instead, he or she is only required to step down after any conviction and subsequent appeals process has played out, which could take years.
Netanyahu and his allies have conducted a campaign to delegitimize the investigations since they were made public in January 2017. Characterizing the legal process as a media-fueled witch hunt, he has often promised, “There will be nothing because there is nothing.” But as the probes advanced and Netanyahu faced more than 10 rounds of questioning, “nothing” turned into something quite significant.
Mandelblit laid out the foundation of the criminal charges in a 57-page filing in February when he announced he would pursue charges of bribery and breach of trust.
In the most serious case, known as Case 4000, prosecutors say Netanyahu advanced regulatory benefits worth more than 1 billion shekels (approximately $280 million) to his friend, millionaire Shaul Elovitch, who owned the Walla! News website as part of his control of the Bezeq telecommunications company.
Prosecutors say that in exchange, Netanyahu, who also served at that time as Israel’s Minister of Communications, received favorable news coverage on Walla! as well as influence over the choice of stories and language used.
Mandelblit described the relationship between Netanyahu and Elovitch as “intensive, frequent, and extraordinary,” adding that relations involving the wives of the two men were at a similar level.
“Elovitch gave you the above-mentioned favors in the expectation and mutual understanding that with regard to your power, position, and authority, you … would be able to help him promote matters that would give him, directly or indirectly, enormous benefits of a business and financial nature,” Mandelblit wrote in his February filing.
Beginning in late 2012, prosecutors say Netanyahu made “hundreds of demands, sometimes on a daily basis” for more positive news coverage, especially during election periods. On election day in 2015, prosecutors say Netanyahu demanded that the website feature prominently a video in which he declared, “The Arabs [are] going to the polls in droves.”
Netanyahu conveyed his demands to Elovitch directly, prosecutors say, as well as through some of those closest to him, including Shlomo Filber, then serving as Director-General of the Ministry of Communications, and Nir Hefetz, who was the Netanyahu family spokesman at that time. Both Hefetz and Filber became the state’s witnesses during the investigation period, providing evidence and testimony against their former boss. Netanyahu’s former chief-of-staff, Ari Harow, also became a state’s witness.
In a series of extensive transcripts of conversations related to Walla! News coverage of Netanyahu, prosecutors laid out a pattern of behavior in which Netanyahu, either directly or through intermediaries, would demand that stories be published, headlines changed and coverage altered.
In 2015, Netanyahu appointed Filber — then one of his closest confidants — to the position of Director-General in the Ministry of Communications and allegedly instructed him to fast-track approval of a merger between Bezeq and another telecommunications company called Yes.
The merger directly benefited Elovitch because of his stake in Bezeq. Prosecutors say Filber maintained a secret channel with Elovitch and other Bezeq officials to keep them updated on the approval status of the merger. At the same time, the Bezeq officials allegedly made their own demands regarding the wording of the merger approval, insisting the deal be approved with no major changes.
Netanyahu has insisted that all of the decisions regarding Bezeq and the merger with Yes were made only after consultations with legal professionals and industry experts. Elovitch, who faces potential charges of bribery, has also denied any wrongdoing.
In the other two cases against Netanyahu, known as Case 1000 and 2000, he faces two charges of fraud and breach of trust, one from each investigation. In Israel, fraud and breach of trust is a single charge.
(PHOTO: Ronen Zvulun/POOL/AFP/GETTY)