Kafe Knesset: Attorney General to indict Netanyahu | Trump weighs in from Hanoi | Sexual harassment claim against Gantz | Fake news crackdown

Welcome to Kafe Knesset: Your daily guide on everything driving the conversation in Israeli politics. I’m Neri Zilber and I look forward to briefing you from now through the upcoming election and beyond. Thank you to our daily subscribers for your interest and support. If you are not yet a subscriber, please sign up here. You can also follow me @NeriZilber and please email Neri@KafeKnesset.com or reply to this newsletter with your news tips and feedback. Thanks!

Attorney General To Indict Netanyahu: After an investigation lasting nearly three years, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is set to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in three separate corruption cases, including on charges of fraud, breach of trust, and the most severe of all — bribery. This comes after both the Israel Police (February 2018) and the State Prosecutor’s Office (December 2018) also recommended indictments….

Ultimately it was up to the AG — a former Netanyahu cabinet secretary — to make the official decision, which will only be finalized after allowing the suspects a hearing to lay out their side. Such a hearing will take place later in the year, with some legal experts predicting early 2020 as a possibility too. Mandelblit was set to issue an official statement this afternoon, with Netanyahu expected to make a public announcement in the evening. A PM spokesman last night called the impending indictment “absurd” and vowed that the “house of cards was about to collapse”….

The three cases (referred to as Case 1000, 2000, and 4000) involve alleged Netanyahu dealmaking with various rich businessmen and media tycoons. In Case 1000 (fraud, breach of trust) Netanyahu is alleged to have received gifts — champagne, cigars, jewelry — from two wealthy benefactors. In Case 2000 (fraud, breach of trust) Netanyahu is alleged to have offered assistance to a prominent newspaper publisher in return for positive coverage. In Case 4000 (bribery), Netanyahu is alleged to have provided regulatory breaks worth hundreds of millions of dollars to a major media tycoon in return for positive coverage on his news website….

Mandelblit was not expected to provide extensive material evidence (e.g case files) to back up his decision. Sources in the Justice Ministry said they didn’t want the evidence used against the suspects during an election campaign. With the final hearing months away, the immediate danger to Netanyahu is more political than legal. Netanyahu’s party members and coalition partners have stood by him throughout — all have vowed to wait for the final hearing….

Yet concern is growing that the AG decision could push voters away from Netanyahu’s Likud, costing them the election. A recent Times of Israel poll showed that Likud could lose four Knesset seats post-indictment, and with that their rule. A different school of thought, highlighted by another poll, indicates that the public has “priced in” its preexisting opinions about Bibi (with or without an indictment) and that the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox publics will stand with him. According to the poll, many believe Netanyahu’s constant refrain that he’s the victim of a “witch-hunt,” all part of a “left-wing” and “media” plot to oust him and his right-wing government. Come election day the public will have its say…..

Trump Weighs In From Hanoi: Speaking at a press conference in Hanoi, President Donald Trump was asked by Israel’s Kan TV about Netanyahu’s legal troubles and the peace process. Without addressing the cases directly, Trump did say Bibi has “done a great job as prime minister, he’s tough, he’s smart, he’s strong.” Trump also weighed in on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts led by Jared Kushner — “they say it’s, like, the impossible deal...I’d love to be able to produce it” —- while only saying “he hoped” his administration’s plan would be released soon. Interestingly, Trump said the Palestinians “have been much better” of late after the wholesale cuts in U.S. aid over the past year….  

Kushner’s trip to the region this week drumming up support for his peace plan was slammed (anonymously) by three Gulf Arab sources. As Reuters put it, one “source said Kushner, a real estate developer with little experience of international diplomacy or political negotiation, wanted to make a deal first and then agree on details.” A second source said the parameters of the U.S. plan were still being finalized, but that Arab concerns regarding final status issues like Jerusalem, West Bank settlements, and Palestinian refugees had apparently not been taken into account….

Sexual Harassment Claim Made Against Gantz: An Israeli national living in the U.S. alleged yesterday in a public Facebook post that main Netanyahu challenger Benny Gantz (head of Blue and White) sexually harassed her when both were teenagers studying in a youth village in central Israel in the 1970s. The woman, Nava Jacobs, claims that Gantz exposed himself to her, and that there was another witness to the act (a friend of Gantz’s) as well as a similar separate incident she had knowledge of….

Israel’s Channel 12 interviewed a distraught Jacobs on its primetime telecast last night, with the local press debating whether it was appropriate to air/publish such uncorroborated, four-decades old accusations. Walla News reported today that a senior Likud minister may have assisted Jacobs in airing the salacious details, a claim the Likud has denied. Blue and White, for its part, told Kafe Knesset that the allegations were “a blatant lie” and that they were pursuing legal action against the woman. “The political incitement has reached a new low,” its spokesperson said….

Crackdown on ‘Fake News’: The Central Elections Committee yesterday banned political parties from running campaign ads anonymously (even via third party contractors) in an effort to curb false online propaganda — in particular, per the ruling, from foreign powers looking to meddle in the Israeli election. Of note, Likud was the only party to have opposed the transparency effort. The ban is set to take effect next week….

In related news, Facebook announced the launch of a new transparency tool that would provide greater details about political ads running on the social network, such as their cost, target demographics and reach. The new feature is set to launch in mid-March, just a few weeks ahead of the April 9 election….

Palestinian Tensions Rising: IDF jets and attack helicopters last night struck a Hamas military compound inside the Gaza Strip, in response to an explosive balloon launched earlier in the day. The device damaged a home in an adjacent Israeli community….

The Gaza incident came amidst a backdrop of rising political tensions in both Jerusalem and the West Bank. In Jerusalem a week-long standoff continued between Muslim worshippers and Israeli authorities over access to a gate leading into the Al Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount Compound. Worshippers had forced open the structure — closed since 2003 — late last week. Israel in turn has arrested prominent Palestinian activists and officials based in Jerusalem, and is negotiating with Jordan (a joint custodian of the site) to find a solution….

In the West Bank, senior Palestinian Authority officials yesterday declared their intention to refuse all Israeli tax transfers in protest of a recent Israeli anti-terror law set to cut a percentage of these funds. Per agreement, Israel transfers to the PA approximately $193 million every month in taxes it collects on its behalf. The law would have seen about $11 million of this amount withheld every month. With the Israeli tax transfers making up a significant part of the PA budget, Palestinian officials and analysts raised the threat of instability as a result of PA civil servants and security forces going unpaid.