Kafe Knesset: A legal expert explains the Bibi indictments | How the right, opposition and Americans are reacting to the Bibi news | Admiration for Israeli democracy from UAE

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Making Sense of the Mandelblit Decision — Interview with a Legal Expert: To make legal sense of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s bombshell decision last Thursday to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on bribery, breach of trust, and fraud charges — all pending a future hearing — Kafe Knesset spoke to Dr. Guy Lurie of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent and non-partisan research institute based in Jerusalem. Lurie is an expert on governmental ethics and the role of the attorney general in Israel’s legal system. The following has been edited for space and clarity.

Kafe Knesset: Mandelblit issued a 57-page decision, including annexes of select evidence against the PM and other co-conspirators in the three corruption cases. Legally speaking what did you make of the AG’s report?

Guy Lurie: The report was relatively exceptional — and I mean it in a positive sense — in terms of its transparency and openness regarding the process, especially compared to prior [similar AG] reports. It shows that a professional, detailed and orderly process took place leading up to the decision. With regard to substance, Mandelblit adopted a conservative legal position. He was very careful and likely didn’t want to take risks, only going for the charges he thought he could prove — and convict on — in a court of law. Mandelblit in the report showed the differences of opinion [between him and the State Prosecutor, who wanted to charge the PM for bribery in all three cases] but it’s clear that the ultimate decision was the AG’s, who was more conservative.

Kafe Knesset: Given the charges and evidence laid out in the report, what are the chances that Netanyahu is able to change the AG’s mind during the hearing?

Guy Lurie: The report looks detailed but it’s important to understand that not all the evidence and details were laid out — it’s not the full picture yet. And a hearing isn’t a court of law. Not all the evidence is presented to the suspect, they won’t get into all the little details. It’s just a chance for the suspect’s attorneys to lay out general principles so the AG doesn’t indict. The only guideline for the AG in this respect is the one provided by the Supreme Court, that he “keep an open mind.” There have been instances where a prosecutor has changed his or her mind during a hearing, and has either reduced the charges or closed the case entirely. But here’s an important disclaimer: so many eyes have looked at this [i.e. police investigators and prosecutors], and the process was conducted under a magnifying glass in an orderly and in-depth way, that it’s unlike other cases. The chances are lower here.  

Kafe Knesset: And yet there have been previous high-profile legal cases against politicians that have collapsed, right?

Guy Lurie: It does happen, sure. The prosecution’s winning percentage isn’t 100 percent, nor should it be. But I don’t think it’s a problem legally. A suspect’s presumption of innocence has to be maintained throughout. The tension in this case [against a sitting PM] is between the legal process (and the suspect’s rights) and the current political process (where he’s trying to maintain the public’s trust). It’s a question between democratic legitimacy and a legal process which is long and ongoing. The timing of the hearing needs to be negotiated between the prosecutors and the [suspect’s] lawyers. It likely won’t happen before the end of 2019.

Kafe Knesset: If the worst does come to pass and Netanyahu is officially indicted, how bad could it get for him legally?

Guy Lurie: We should stress that all the charges are at this point only alleged. But if it’s proved then bribery and breach of trust are very serious charges in the law book. They undermine the public’s trust as well as the ethical integrity of the government. They are some of the most serious charges that can be made against a civil servant. Bribery is the most severe and carries with it a ten year prison sentence.  

How It’s Playing — The Right: Despite the events of recent days, over the weekend Netanyahu received a boost from his Likud party members and current (and potentially future) coalition partners who all held firm in their support of the embattled PM despite the AG’s decision….

A host of senior Likud ministers took to the TV and radio studios to defend their party leader. Appearing on Channel 13 Thursday night, Minister of Science and Technology Ofir Akunis, looking directly at the camera, said: “I support Prime Minister Netanyahu. I’ve supported him since ‘95, when I first started working with him — and I support him now”….

Interior Security Minister Gilad Erdan said during a contentious interview on Channel 12 last night: “Let’s not roll our eyes….There are political considerations in the legal world — both in the Supreme Court and in the State Prosecutor’s Office”….

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Reshet Bet radio this morning that Israel’s enemies want to see Netanyahu toppled: “Tehran and Ramallah will be celebrating Bibi’s defeat”….

Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beitenu, said during a public event Saturday in Tel Aviv: “I have not read the list of suspicions against Netanyahu, and I do not intend to read it. Only the court is authorized to determine whether a person is guilty or acquitted in Israel. The presumption of innocence is reserved for everyone, including the prime minister”….

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, head of Kulanu, was more cryptic, tweeting yesterday that “he really hoped that suspicions regarding demands for negative coverage about me prove to be incorrect,” an allusion to Case 4000 and alleged Bibi demands that Walla News go after Kahlon and other political rivals. Yet other Kulanu officials were explicit: they would still choose a Netanyahu-led government after the election. “Our position on the issue is clear — there’s nothing to talk about until after the hearing,” Housing Minister Yifat Sasha-Biton said yesterday….

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, co-head of The New Right, said this morning on Israel Radio: “Until a final indictment is filed there is nothing to discuss. We will tell the president we recommend Netanyahu to form the government”….

How It’s Playing — The Opposition: Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming sentiment among the opposition was support for the legal authorities and disgust with the PM. Most called on Netanyahu to step down….

Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White, slammed Netanyahu in his own primetime address last Thursday, accusing him of harming the country and choosing a path unbecoming of a PM: “Benjamin Netanyahu, I turn to you from here this evening — wake up, think about the national responsibility and resign. If and when you prove your innocence — you can return to the public arena with your head held high”….

Gantz’s running mate in Blue and White, Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon, chimed in on Twitter, saying he had served with Netanyahu side-by-side for years (including as defense minister), but that “Sadly, something has gone very wrong. Netanyahu has lost his way. What we are witnessing now are the direct results of a path gone very astray. The corruption, the divisive and negative discourse, the struggle for political survival at all costs....Today it is clear, the time has come for Netanyahu to resign”….

Labor, for its part, on Friday organized a 60-vehicle convoy, replete with black flags, to drive by the PM’s residence, calling it a “black day” for Israel. A campaign video the party released highlighted coverage of the indictments in the international media and called on the PM to resign: “The World Is Watching: Netanyahu Is Embarrassing Israel,” it said….

Benny Begin — a retiring Likud lawmaker and son of former PM Menachem Begin — came out publicly against Netanyahu’s conduct during an interview this morning with Army Radio, accusing Bibi of “attempting to assassinate the public’s trust in law enforcement institutions.” Begin defended the AG, adding: “When Netanyahu says Mandelblit is ‘just flesh and blood’ he means to say Mandelblit is a doormat succumbing to pressure and cooperating with schemes plotted against him within the police and the prosecution. I think those are very serious things to tell a high-ranking public official, and they are baseless”….

Arguably the most surprising analysis came from Yehuda Yifrach, the legal correspondent for the religious-nationalist Makor Rishon daily. Yifrach recommended everyone read Mandelblit’s report for themselves, and said that having done so, it’ll be clear that the charges leveled against the PM can’t be overcome. “It’ll take five, six or seven month, but that’s the way it’s heading,” he wrote. “Netanyahu was a unique and exceptional prime minister, and it’s allowed to shed a tear for the way his era will end”….

How It’s Playing — The Legal Authorities: In the face of sustained attacks against the professionalism and integrity of his staff, Channel 12’s Friday night telecast publicized a letter Mandelblit sent to his entire team, thanking them for their work and support. “It’s not a happy day, but it’s an important day for the rule of law….I’m proud of you,” he wrote. “Senior judicial sources” also anonymously blasted the PM for his criticism and said they expect politicians to tell the premier — “up to here”….

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (co-head of The New Right) last night on Channel 12 also stood up for the legal authorities who the PM attacked by name. “I know the Attorney General and his staff well. They’re not people who get swayed politically. They make decisions professionally….we also need to remember that [Tel Aviv district attorney] Liat Ben-Ari was the prosecutor against [former PM Ehud] Olmert”….

How It’s Playing — America and Beyond: In a much-discussed op-ed amongst the Israeli media set, the New York Times’ Bret Stephens excoriated Netanyahu, saying “the reign of King Bibi has gone on long enough” and that it was time for him to go: “Netanyahu is a man for whom no moral consideration comes before political interest and whose chief political interest is himself. He is a cynic wrapped in an ideology inside a scheme.” Considered a friend of Israel and previously supportive of Bibi, Stephens is the second prominent conservative columnist — after Bloomberg’s Eli Lake the other week — to openly call for the end of the Netanyahu era….

On the other end of the political spectrum, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren weighed in on Twitter, blasting the PM for “[F]irst embracing right-wing extremism. Now manipulating a free press, accepting bribes, and trading government favors. The allegations against...Netanyahu are serious and cut to the heart of a functioning democracy. Corruption — in Israel, in the US, or anywhere else — is a cancer that threatens democracy. We need to fight back. And we can start by having the courage to call it out wherever it occurs. Even among our allies”….  

Support for the AG came from an unexpected quarter, with UAE billionaire Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor taking to Twitter to post a video offering his opinion on the matter: “I cannot help but admire the democracy governing Israel where General Attorney is publicly investigating Israeli PM Netanyahu, while in any other Arab country that claims to be democratic, this never happens. Some Arab democracies are nothing but hollow and fragile governments.”