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Netanyahu demands public confrontation with state witnesses in corruption probe

Israel's right-wing Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu talks during a press conference in Jerusalem on 16 April, 2008 [Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images]
Israel's right-wing Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu talks during a press conference in Jerusalem on 16 April, 2008 [Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded that he be allowed to confront state witnesses in the corruption cases levelled against him.

In a televised statement, the Prime Minister announced that he had asked Israeli police on two separate occasions to be allowed to confront state witnesses and on both occasions was refused. Netanyahu began by saying: “Citizens of the state of Israel, in recent days there has been public turmoil,” before saying: “I maintain that calling me for a hearing before elections, without me being able to answer the claims made in the hearing, is a lack of justice.”

Netanyahu then claimed that he had been prevented from meeting with state witnesses, saying:

I would like to expose that during the investigations into my case, I asked to talk to those [state] witnesses and look them in the eye and put the truth in front of them. I asked once and was refused, and when I asked a second time they again refused. Why did they refuse this dialogue? What are they afraid of? What do they have to hide?

He continued: “I am certain I am just and right – I want to be confronted with all witnesses whose statements do not match with mine. Even the prime minister has the right to a fair trial, I am certain of the truth by 4000 per cent, but how can you get to the truth when you cannot speak with those witnesses and they don’t call central witnesses who contradict those that suit the prosecution?”

“Tonight I ask again to stand in front of those state witnesses to argue with them, I don’t mind if it is broadcast live so the public can know the truth,” Netanyahu claimed.

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Netanyahu’s speech has been interpreted as referring to a number of former confidants and close business associates who have turned state witness, aiding the Israeli police with their investigations in return for protection or lesser sentences for their own involvement. One such state witness was Nir Hefetz, Netanyahu’s former spin doctor who gave evidence in the so-called Case 4000 and who is himself suspected of bribing a judge.

Netanyahu's corruption scandal - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Netanyahu’s corruption scandal – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Netanyahu’s speech will likely be seen as a disappointment, after speculation reached fever pitch this afternoon as to the contents of his announcement. This afternoon, Netanyahu’s spokesman revealed that the prime minister intended to broadcast a “dramatic statement” at 20:00 local time (18:00 GMT), with the contents of his speech kept secret save for among Netanyahu’s attorneys and close associates.

Israeli daily Haaretz had reported earlier today that the statement would reveal “new information” regarding the corruption probes, explaining that: “In recent days, the premier has been handling all issues regarding his election campaign with utter secrecy and his spokespeople are refusing to respond to questions such as who will be the lawyer representing the campaign.”

“A statement on behalf of Likud, the premier’s party, refused to address the upcoming announcement until Netanyahu speaks later Monday,” Haaretz had added.

Israeli commentators were quick to lambast the prime minister’s theatrics as nothing more than a campaign speech, with i24’s diplomatic correspondent Ellie Hochenberg seeing his statement today as indicative of the “arm-wrestling between Netanyahu and the Israeli media over who is dictating the timetable for and discourse surrounding the indictment”. “Netanyahu knows how to do it and he is out-winning the media,” Hochenberg suggested.

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Netanyahu has been embroiled in three separate corruption cases, dubbed Case 1000, Case 2000 and Case 4000 respectively. In Case 1000, Netanyahu stands accused of accepting lavish gifts from two influential businessmen in return for favourable legislation and personal favours.

In Case 2000, Netanyahu is being investigated for promising Arnon Mozes – the owner of Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aronoth – that he would curtail the circulation of Israel Hayom, Mozes’ main competitor publication, in return for favourable coverage of him and his policies.

In October, Netanyahu was questioned for the 12th time in relation to cases 1000 and 2000, the first time since Hefetz turned state’s witness. Netanyahu has vehemently denied the allegations, calling the investigations “boneless”. A statement from the PM’s office, issued shortly after October’s round of interrogations, said that: “The prime minister responded to all of the questions he was asked with full confidence, fully aware that nothing happened and therefore nothing will happen”.

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In Case 4000 – sometimes known as the Bezeq case – Netanyahu is accused of providing regulatory benefits to Shaul Elovitch, the owner of telecom giant Bezeq, in return for favourable coverage on Elovitch’s Walla news site. In December, Israel’s State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan suggested Netanyahu should be indicted, saying that Case 4000 constitutes “a clear case of bribery”, while Cases 1000 and 2000 are seen as “bribery lite”. Nitzan added that Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, would now discuss “the complex, ethical and legal issues that arise from these cases based on the opinions he will hear in order to make a decision,” noting that the opinion drafted by the prosecutor’s office is 800 pages long.

Intense debate has raged in Israel as to whether Mandelblit should release his ruling and indict the prime minister before the upcoming General Election scheduled for 9 April. Yesterday the Times of Israel reported that Mandelblit will make a decision in February. Netanyahu’s office issued an angry statement in response to the announcement, saying that:

Something smells. The average time to decide on cases of public figures in the State Prosecutor’s Office is 18 months. In Case 4000, it has taken less than 18 days. Nothing has ever run amok in this way in the history of Israeli law, and it is doubtful whether it has occurred in the history of democratic state.

“It is clear to all that the lack of good faith is not found in Prime Minister Netanyahu, but in those who again leaked the unbridled and baseless attacks against him,” the statement concluded.

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Modest Netanyahu – “I am ready to leave my position tomorrow as prime minister, but I have no one to leave the keys with” – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

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