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Israel: Attorney General Announces Intent to Indict Prime Minister for Bribery, Fraud, and Breach of Trust, Pending a Hearing

(Mar. 5, 2019) On February 28, 2019, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges stemming from three investigations, pending a hearing. (The Attorney General, The Decision of the Attorney General Regarding the Cases Under Investigation in Which the Prime Minister Was Questioned as a Suspect (The Decision), Feb. 28, 2019, Ynet website (in Hebrew).)

The decision provides information on the developments in the investigations and on “significant common threads[,] … significant witnesses whose testimonies are relevant in each of the cases under investigation, and the shared relevance of some of the investigation material” that led to the attorney general’s determination to indict. (Id. § 13.)

The three cases under investigation are referred to as Case 1000, Case 2000, and Case 4000.

Case 1000

This case involves the prime minister’s alleged systematic receipt of gifts (mostly champagne and expensive cigars) worth a total of about 1 million New Israeli Shekels (about US$276,000) from American billionaire Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer. The investigation concluded that during the period in which the gifts were received, Netanyahu used his authority to benefit Milchan’s personal and business interests, which included providing tax benefits, providing a US visa, promoting the merger of two TV networks, promoting a free-trade zone on the Israel-Jordan border against the recommendations of the defense establishment, and handling the “affairs of Channel 10, despite knowing his friend Milchan owned shares in the channel.” (Id. § 10; see also AG Seeks Netanyahu Indictments for Bribery, Fraud, Breach of Trust, YNET (Feb. 28, 2019).)

On the basis of the evidence, the attorney general decided to charge Netanyahu in this case with fraud and breach of trust. (Decision § 50.)

Case 2000

The investigation found that the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper’s owner and publisher, Arnon Mozes, had offered Netanyahu positive and favorable coverage of the prime minister and his family in Yedioth Ahronoth and unfavorable coverage of the prime minister’s political rivals in return for promoting legislation that would weaken Sheldon Adelson’s free rival newspaper, Israel Hayom. (Decision § 51; Revital Hovel, Netanyahu to Be Charged with Bribery Pending Hearing, HAARETZ (Feb. 28, 2019).)

The attorney general concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to indicate that Netanyahu had requested or accepted the offer. In discussing Mozes’s offer, however, the attorney general determined that the prime minister had apparently violated public trust and “inflicted substantial harm to the ethical standards [owed by] public servants, and to public trust in public servants.” The attorney general therefore recommended that Netanyahu be indicted in this case on charges of fraud and breach of trust. (Decision § 51.)

Case 4000

In Case 4000, Netanyahu is accused of providing regulatory concessions to Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications company, in exchange for systematic favorable coverage from Bezeq’s news website, Walla. The attorney general decided that the prime minister should be charged with bribery and breach of trust. (Decision §§§ 18, 40 & 53; Hovel, supra.)

Penalties for the Offenses Detailed in the AG’s Decision

In accordance with section 290(a) of the Penal Law, 5737-1977, a public servant who takes bribes for an action related to his position is punishable by imprisonment for a term of ten years or a substantial fine. (Penal Law, 5737-1977, § 290(a), SEFER HAHUKIM [SH] [BOOK OF LAWS] (official gazette) 5737 No. 864 p. 226, as amended.)

Under section 284 of the Penal Law, “[a] public servant who commits an act of fraud or breach of trust that harms the public, even if the act was not an offense if it was committed against an individual, shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of three years.” (Id. § 284.)

Implications for Netanyahu’s Eligibility to Serve as Prime Minister

Israel’s Basic Law: the Government requires that an indictment against a prime minister be filed by the attorney general in the District Court in Jerusalem and heard before three judges. If the prime minister is convicted, the Court must determine in its verdict whether the offense constituted moral turpitude. (BASIC LAW: THE GOVERNMENT § 17(c–d), SH 5761 No. 1780 p. 158.)

The Basic Law contains provisions regulating the termination of the prime minister’s service following conviction for an offense involving moral turpitude. (Id. § 18.) The Law, however, does not require removal of the prime minister from service before conviction, nor does it prohibit a candidate who is expected to be indicted for offenses committed while in office from running in elections.