Netanyahu’s legal saga reaches critical stage in Israel

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FILE – In this Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019 file photo, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz delivers a statement in Tel Aviv. For the sixth time in his lengthy political career, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been tasked by Israel’s president to form a new government. This time it’s no mere formality, but rather a daunting endeavor that looks like mission impossible. A unity government between Likud and the Black and White parties, with a rotating leadership, still appears to be the most plausible way out of the gridlock. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Prosecutors began a pre-indictment hearing for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, opening a critical stage in a lengthy legal saga that threatens to end the career of the long-serving Israeli leader and has paralyzed the country’s political system.

Netanyahu’s lawyers sat down with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit for 11 hours of discussions that will determine whether criminal charges will be pressed against the prime minister in a series of corruption cases. If formal charges are filed, Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, could come under heavy pressure to step down.

Mandelblit already has recommended that Netanyahu be indicted on fraud, breach of trust and bribery charges in three cases. Under Israeli law, Netanyahu is entitled to plead his case at a hearing in a last-ditch attempt to persuade prosecutors to drop their case.

Netanyahu did not appear at Wednesday’s hearing, sending instead a high-powered 10-member legal team. As they entered the Israeli Justice Ministry, his lawyers ruled out a plea bargain and expressed confidence that the charges would be dropped.

“We are going to present not only the evidence everyone is aware of but also new evidence. We are sure that once we present our findings there will be no choice but to close the case,” Netanyahu attorney Amit Haddad said.

After Wednesday’s marathon session ended, Netanyahu’s lawyers told reporters they were confident they would be able to refute all charges.

Throughout the day, Netanyahu took to social media to make the case for his innocence, defiantly pledging that the case against him would “fall apart.”

Netanyahu’s legal woes lie at the heart of a deadlock that has left the country with a caretaker government. In national elections last month, neither Netanyahu nor his chief challenger, Benny Gantz, secured the required parliamentary majority to form a new government.

Both men have expressed support for a unity government as a way out of the deadlock. But they remain far apart on who should lead it and what smaller parties would join them.

Gantz and his centrist Blue and White Party have so far rejected a partnership with Netanyahu, citing his legal woes. A failure to reach a deal could trigger an unprecedented third election in less than a year.

Netanyahu is desperate to stay on as prime minister, a post he can use as a pulpit as he tries to fend off any charges. Israeli law requires Cabinet ministers to step down if charged with a crime. But the law is vague for sitting prime ministers, meaning he could theoretically remain in the post if he is indicted, though he would likely face calls to step aside.

For this reason, his opponents accuse him of stalling in unity talks and pushing for another election, which would allow Netanyahu to remain as prime minister for at least another three months. Late Tuesday, Gantz abruptly called off a planned meeting with Netanyahu.

“One man is holding the country hostage,” said Yair Lapid, a top Blue and White leader. “One man is doing everything to lead us to elections: Benjamin Netanyahu.”

The allegations against Netanyahu include suspicions that he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars of champagne and cigars from billionaire friends, offered to trade favors with a newspaper publisher and used his influence to help a wealthy telecom magnate in exchange for favorable coverage on a popular news site.

Netanyahu has called the allegations part of a witch hunt, lashing out against the media, police, prosecutors and the justice system. In last month’s election, he fell short of mustering a parliamentary majority in favor of granting him immunity from prosecution.

The hearing is expected to last at least four days, and it could take weeks for the attorney general to render his final decision. However, legal experts say the likelihood of an indictment is high, given the mountains of evidence collected by police over years of investigations and the prosecution’s seeming consensus of pursuing a trial.

Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, is responsible for designating a politician to try to form a coalition, and last week, he selected Netanyahu, believing he had the best chance of success. Netanyahu has up to six weeks to do so, but he has indicated he will give up before then if he feels he can’t reach a deal with Gantz.

Gantz would likely be given a chance to form his own coalition, though his odds of success appear slim. There are deep divisions among Gantz’s potential coalition allies, and Netanyahu’s Likud party has so far rejected his demand to have Netanyahu replaced as party leader.

If Gantz doesn’t succeed, Rivlin can select another legislator or he can set in motion what would be unprecedented third elections.

According to the final official results from the Sept. 17 elections, Blue and White finished first with 33 seats in the 120-seat parliament, just ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud with 32 seats. Netanyahu edged Gantz, however, 55-54 in the number of lawmakers who recommend him as prime minister, leaving both short of the magic number of 61.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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