JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attorneys met Wednesday with Israel’s attorney general and other top law enforcement officials in Netanyahu’s long-awaited pre-indictment hearing on a series of corruption scandals.
The hearing is the last step before formal charges are pressed and has been delayed many times already. It looms large over Netanyahu’s efforts to extend his political career. The sessions are expected to last four days and they come just two weeks after Israel’s second inconclusive election of the year.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has recommended indicting Netanyahu on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges in three different cases. The hearing offers Netanyahu’s legal team a chance to present its defense in hopes of convincing authorities to drop the charges. A decision on whether to indict is expected by the end of the year.
The scandals have engulfed Netanyahu’s family and his inner circle, with at least three former close confidants turning state’s witnesses and testifying against him.
Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, have long been known for their penchant for an expensive lifestyle and questionable use of public funds. Mrs. Netanyahu was convicted of misusing state funds after she reached a plea bargain settling allegations that she overspent some $100,000 of state money on lavish meals. She’d previously been indicted for graft, fraud and breach of trust.
Here’s a look at the three cases the hearing will focus upon:
The most damaging case against Netanyahu involves an influence-peddling scandal in which two of his formerly closest aides are testifying against him on suspicion of promoting regulation worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel’s Bezeq telecom company. In return, Bezeq’s popular news site, Walla, allegedly provided favorable coverage of Netanyahu and his family.
Nir Hefetz, a former Netanyahu family spokesman, and Shlomo Filber, the former director of the Communications Ministry under Netanyahu, cut deals with prosecutors after they were arrested along with Bezeq’s controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch, his wife, son and other top Bezeq executives. Former journalists at the Walla news site have attested to being pressured to refrain from negative reporting of Netanyahu. The charges here include bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Police recommended indicting Netanyahu over accepting nearly $300,000 in gifts from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer.
Police say that in return for jewelry, expensive cigars and champagne, Netanyahu operated on Milchan’s behalf on U.S. visa matters, tried to legislate a generous tax break for him and sought to promote his interests in the Israeli media market.
Police have not commented on what Packer, who reportedly sought Israeli residency status for tax purposes, may have received, and Netanyahu has said all he received were gifts from friends. Longtime aide Ari Harow is a state witness in this case. The charges include fraud and breach of trust.
Police have also recommended indicting Netanyahu for offering a newspaper publisher legislation that would weaken his paper’s main rival in return for more favorable coverage.
Netanyahu reportedly was recorded asking Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the Yediot Ahronot daily, for positive coverage in exchange for helping to weaken Israel Hayom, a free pro-Netanyahu newspaper that had cut into Yediot’s business.
Israel Hayom is financed by Netanyahu’s American billionaire friend Sheldon Adelson and largely serves as the prime minister’s mouthpiece. Netanyahu has noted that a proposed law to weaken Israel Hayom never passed and that he had even dissolved his coalition and called a new election in 2015 because of his opposition to the proposal. Harow is a state witness in this case, too.
According to TV reports based on recently leaked police investigations, Adelson’s wife also testified that Sara Netanyahu exerted pressure on her to provide gifts and favorable media coverage. The charges include fraud and breach of trust.
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