Netanyahu takes aim at graft probes ahead of Israel polls

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem January 6, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 07 January 2019

Netanyahu takes aim at graft probes ahead of Israel polls

  • Netanyahu has spoken out against the possibility that the attorney general will announce his decision on whether to indict him before April 9 elections
  • 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

JERUSALEM: 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 criticized 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.
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 vandalized, though it was unclear if the incidents were connected, according to Israeli media.
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 realize 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.”


Iran conservationists get prison time amid unrest: Activists

Updated 4 min 21 sec ago

Iran conservationists get prison time amid unrest: Activists

DUBAI: Six conservationists working to save the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah have been sentenced to prison on internationally criticized espionage charges in Iran, activists said Thursday, even as protests and unrest continue in parts of the country amid a government-imposed Internet shutdown.
The case against members of the nonprofit Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation show how spying charges and convictions can be levied against dual nationals and those with Western ties in Iran in closed-door trials before its Revolutionary Court.
News of the cases comes after demonstrations against government-set gasoline prices rising turned violent in Iran, killing at least 106 people, according to Amnesty International.
Iran disputes that figure without offering its own and has turned off the Internet across the country, making it difficult to reach those where protests go on. A UN office earlier said it feared the unrest may have killed “a significant number of people.”
The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran said Thursday that the convicted conservationists face six to 10 years in prison for “contacts with the US enemy state.” Two others have yet to hear verdicts, it said.
The conservationists found themselves arrested over their use of camera traps to track the cheetahs, a common tool of wildlife experts.
One of the conservationists, Iranian-Canadian citizen Kavous Seyed Emami, died in disputed circumstances in prison in February 2018 awaiting trial. His widow then was blocked from flying out of Iran, but later made it out.
Iran’s Revolutionary Court typically handles espionage cases and others involving smuggling, blasphemy and attempts to overthrow the country’s Islamic government. Westerners and Iranian dual nationals often find themselves tried and convicted in closed-door trials in these courts, only later to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations.
“The only crimes that have been committed in relation to the conservationists are their unlawful arrest, their cruel and inhuman treatment in prolonged solitary confinement, the denial of their due process rights, and their sham convictions and sentencing, without evidence or regard for the requirements of law,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the center’s executive director.
Iranian state media and judiciary officials did not immediately comment on the verdicts, which is common in Revolutionary Court cases. The semiofficial Fars news agency, close to the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, carried a short story acknowledging the verdicts.