Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal and political problems collided Wednesday morning, with the Israeli leader’s hopes of forming a government slipping away as pre-indictment hearings in his ongoing corruption probes began.
On Wednesday morning, Netanyahu’s legal team met with the attorney general for the first day of hearings in three criminal investigations against the 69-year-old leader, in an attempt to convince the prosecution to drop some, or all, of the charges.
Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has said he intends to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery and breach of trust pending the outcome of these hearings.
Netanyahu has always maintained his innocence, claiming the investigations are a media-fueled witch hunt meant to take him down.
The hearings are scheduled to last four days, stretching into next week.
As his lawyers were meeting at the Ministry of Justice, Netanyahu himself had been set to meet with his main political rival, former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party edged out Netanyahu’s Likud party in September’s elections.
The two were scheduled to discuss the possibility of a unity government to break the political deadlock in Israel that led to second elections and may well lead to a third.
But Blue and White canceled the meeting Tuesday night, just as the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah ended.
“At this stage, the preconditions upon which any further meetings between the negotiating teams may take place have not been met,” Blue and White said in a statement. “In view of this, no meeting will be held on Wednesday.”
In response, the Likud party said they were “shocked” by the decision to “blow up” the negotiations. The rival parties accused each other of trying to drag the country into a third election within a year.
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin has tried to broker an agreement between Likud and Blue and White, even suggesting a rotation between Netanyahu and Gantz as Prime Minister.
Negotiating teams for the two leaders’ parties met last week but made little progress.
Gantz has insisted he refuses to sit in a government under Netanyahu while the embattled Israeli leader is under criminal investigation.
He has also objected to Netanyahu’s claim to be negotiating on behalf of a unified bloc that includes the ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist parties. The Blue and White leader says that negotiations should be held between his party and Likud only.
The political deadlock leaves Netanyahu few options to form a government. His 55-seat bloc falls six short of the 61 necessary to cobble together a governing coalition. Other smaller parties have resisted his attempts to get them to join.
Faced with the difficulty of forming a government, speculation is rife in Israel that Netanyahu will soon return the mandate to Rivlin, allowing the Israeli President to choose someone else to try to form a government.
It would be the second such failure for Netanyahu in the space of six months, after he proved unable to form a government following April’s vote. Then, instead of allowing someone else the opportunity to try to lead the country, Netanyahu called snap elections.
If Netanyahu returns the mandate to the President, it is expected that Benny Gantz will be given a chance to try to form a government. If he too fails – and if no one else emerges who can command the support of a majority of Knesset parliamentarians – a third election will automatically be triggered.
Meanwhile, the legal cases against Netanyahu will advance, as Attorney General Mandeblit decides whether to file charges.
In the first case, known as Case 1000, Mandelblit has said he intends to charge Netanyahu with breach of trust. Case 1000 deals with alleged gifts Netanyahu received from overseas billionaires totaling 1 million Israeli shekels (approximately $280,000), including cigars, champagne, jewelry and more.
The alleged transfers occurred between 2007 and 2016. In exchange for the gifts, investigators say Netanyahu tried to advance a tax break that would have benefited the businessmen who sent the alleged gifts.
In another case, known as Case 2000, Mandelblit has said he plans to charge Netanyahu with another count of breach of trust. Case 2000 deals with alleged negotiations between Netanyahu and Arnon “Noni” Mozes, the owner of one of Israel’s largest newspapers, Yedioth Ahronoth.
Investigators say Netanyahu requested more favorable coverage in exchange for limiting the circulation of Yedioth Ahronoth’s largest rival, Israel Hayom, a free daily owned by right-wing mega-donor Sheldon Adelson that is viewed by critics as a Netanyahu mouthpiece.
The attorney general has also announced his intention to indict Mozes with bribery. Mozes’ lawyer has said his client is innocent and he expects the cases to be closed without charges being filed.
In another case, known as Case 4000, Netanyahu faces possible bribery and breach of trust charges. This case is arguably the largest facing the Prime Minister.
It deals with the relationship between Netanyahu and Israeli telecommunications firm Bezeq. Investigators say Netanyahu advanced regulatory benefits worth 1 billion shekels (around $280 million) to the company and its primary shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, a friend of Netanyahu.
Along with holding the position of prime minister, Netanyahu also served as the minister of communications at the time. In exchange for the benefits, the case alleges Netanyahu received favorable news coverage from Walla News!, an online news organization owned by Elovitch.
Mandelblit said he intended to indict Elovitch with bribery, pending a hearing. Like Netanyahu, Elovitch has denied any wrongdoing.
Netanyahu’s legal team filed a surprise request last week to have the hearings broadcast live, claiming the Israeli public had never heard his full version of the story, despite his numerous statements and social media posts about the investigations.
The attorney general’s office dismissed the request outright, saying it was “unprecedented and without legal basis.”
“The hearing is not intended to convince the public,” the attorney general’s office said.
A final decision by Mandelblit is expected before the end of the year. If indicted, Netanyahu would become the first sitting Prime Minister in Israel’s history to be charged with a criminal offense.