/ 7 January 2019

Netanyahu takes aim at graft probes ahead of Israel polls

The chosen: Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu pulled out all the stops to stay in power.
Netanyahu has spoken out against the possibility that the attorney general will announce his decision on whether to indict him before April 9 elections. (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in recent days taken aim at what seems to be his main opponent ahead of upcoming elections: corruption investigations that may lead to his indictment.

In a widely criticised social media video at the weekend and elsewhere, Netanyahu has spoken out against the possibility that the attorney general will announce his decision on whether to indict him before April 9 elections.

Polls show the premier is likely to win despite the investigations hanging over him, but a move to indict him pending a hearing could shake up the campaign.

With that in mind, he has publicly urged the attorney general to postpone his announcement, leading to criticism that his comments are out of bounds.

After his video on Saturday, former supreme court justice Eliyahu Matza compared Netanyahu’s rhetoric to that of a crime boss.

In the video, Netanyahu stands before a map of the Middle East, smiling as if recounting a joke, and refers to amputation as punishment in certain countries.

He says that a man who has his arm cut off following a conviction for stealing cannot get it back after winning on appeal — hinting that polls influenced by a hearing in the graft cases against him could similary not be undone.

“You don’t start a hearing before the elections if you can’t conclude it before the elections,” he says.

The pre-indictment hearing is a key step in Israel’s judicial process.

If Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announces his intention to indict him, Netanyahu gets a final chance to defend himself in a hearing before the charges are filed.

‘Ludicrous argument’ 

The prime minister, facing possible indictment in three separate probes, says he has no intention of resigning if called in for such a hearing before the vote.

Netanyahu pushed for polls in April — seven months before they are due — because he would like to combat potential charges with a fresh electoral mandate, according to many analysts.

That strategy would allow Netanyahu, who denies all allegations against him, to argue that the investigations are the result of a political plot by his enemies to force him from office against voters’ will.

For that reason, Netanyahu’s argument that the attorney general must wait until after April 9 does not hold water, said Reuven Hazan of Hebrew University’s political science department.

“It’s a completely ludicrous argument because Netanyahu called the early elections in order to try to avoid a decision in the midst of an election campaign,” he said.

“So if Netanyahu is allowed to throw Israel into an election campaign in order to try to circumvent the attorney general, then the attorney general adhering to the legal rules of the game is not something that Netanyahu can throw back at him.”

The pressure on the attorney general is immense.

He has remained largely silent, saying only that his office is working to conclude the investigations as quickly as possible.

Graffiti was recently sprayed in northern Israel calling Mandelblit a “collaborator”, and his father’s grave was also vandalised, though it was unclear if the incidents were connected, according to Israeli media.

‘Thinks we’re in Saudi’ 

Netanyahu’s political allies have ramped up arguments in support of him, while opposition figures — and at least one minister in his current government — insist he must step down if indicted.

A prime minister is not legally required to resign if charged — only after convicted with appeals exhausted.

Winning would put Netanyahu on track to surpass founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

Yair Lapid, head of centrist opposition party Yesh Atid, distributed his own video mocking Netanyahu.

“The prime minister of Israel thinks we’re in Saudi Arabia,” Lapid said, arguing he should not run if indicted.

While Netanyahu may win no matter what the attorney general decides, future coalition partners will face the choice of whether to stick with him as the case takes its course.

Netanyahu supporters may also have to reconsider if “overwhelming evidence” against the premier makes it difficult for him to remain in office, Hazan said.

“They will begin to realise that once there is an indictment and the legal process begins, if there is overwhelming evidence, then this will be the last time that he is elected,” he said.

Under that scenario, Hazan said, “he’s going down — the question is when and the question is will that impact their vote now knowing that they’re not getting another full tenure with Netanyahu at the helm”.