Israel's Attorney General is close to concluding the investigation into the corruption case against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Known in the media as Case 4000, it sees Netanyahu suspected of providing tax breaks to the Bezeq telecommunications company while he was communications minister in exchange for receiving favourable newspaper coverage from Israel's Walla news site, owned by businessman Shaul Elovitch, who also owns Bezeq. The investigation by Avichai Mandelblit is likely to continue for the next two weeks.
Netanyahu has requested through his lawyer a postponement of the decision regarding all of the corruption cases in which he is a suspect until after the General Election in April. However, Mandelblit said that the procedures for investigating the cases related to the Prime Minister, which he began before the election was called, are carrying on as planned. He insists that no delay is going to happen.
Since the announcement of the early parliamentary election, Netanyahu has wondered about the possibility of an indictment being filed against him for one or more of the cases he is involved in. There is also a concern that this might affect the course of the polls, theoretically hitting Netanyahu's chances of winning enough votes for his party and thus his chance of leading the next government. This is unlikely, though, given that opinion polls all suggest that Likud and Netanyahu have a bigger lead than any other previous elections, even if he is indicted. The only explanation for this is that talking about the indictment serves both Likud and Netanyahu, contrary to what we would normally expect. This is partly due to most Israelis' lack of trust in the judiciary, especially among Netanyahu's right-wing supporters who consider him to be the "king of Israel". This suggests that the campaign launched by Netanyahu with the help of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked against the judiciary, accusing it of being a puppet in the hands of the left, has been successful in influencing public opinion.
Despite the nature of the work of the judiciary being highly confidential, leaks do occur. Netanyahu's request to the attorney general to postpone an indictment until after the elections, for example, as well as the latter's response, were both leaked to the media. This was not exceptional, but some believe that the Prime Minister is interested, more than ever, in such leaks as they help to build up his support base among those who distrust the legal establishment in Israel. He will still be seen as a "fighter" against the judiciary when regular news reports mention the possibility of indicting him during the election campaign, which will be seen by many as a deliberate attempt to damage his chances at the polls. Any legal indictment of the Prime Minister during the campaign will, in the eyes of many, be regarded as a sad indictment of the judicial process itself, and those involved in running it. This is an equation that Netanyahu would like to see.
In this context, if Likud and Netanyahu do form the next government, as expected, it is likely that the first thing they will do is submit a draft bill to the new Knesset that would prevent an Israeli prime minister being indicted and put on trial while in office. Such a scenario would mean that all of the Israeli judiciary's efforts and investigations against Netanyahu will be frozen indefinitely. It would also suggest that, ironically, it is very much in Netanyahu's interest for the Attorney General to issue the indictment before April's General Election.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Ayyam on 20 January 2019
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