Israeli attorney general faces Comey-like dilemma in Netanyahu probe

JERUSALEM - As Israel tees up for early elections, one question is on everyone's mind: Will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted before the vote?

With police recommending that the Israeli leader be charged in three corruption cases, the decision whether to go ahead now lies in the hands of one man: Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. And the pressure on him is mounting.

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Mandelblit is in a bind that recalls the lose-lose decision then-FBI Director James Comey faced before the 2016 U.S. elections over the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails.

If the attorney general lays out his conclusions in the corruption probe against Netanyahu before the April 9 vote, he will undoubtedly be accused of improperly influencing the electoral process.

If he waits until afterward, he could draw criticism for improperly withholding information from voters.

Netanyahu, who is widely thought to have called early elections to in a bid to avoid indictment before the vote, has much riding on a delay in the legal process. If he is re-elected, he could argue that he has the public's backing despite the allegations against him. And if he survives until July, he will become Israel's longest-serving prime minister, overtaking the country's founder, David Ben-Gurion.

He has vehemently asserted his innocence, dismissing the investigations with his often-repeated mantra, "There will be nothing because there is nothing."

But the corruption allegations that long swirled around him have solidified. Top aides are now state's witnesses. Police recommend that he be charged with fraud, bribery and breach of trust. In one case, he is accused of accepting bribes in relation to gifts worth $300,000 from wealthy business executives. In the most serious case, he is suspected of influencing regulatory decisions that netted hundreds of millions of dollars for the telecommunications company Bezeq in return for favorable coverage on a news site it owned.

Mandelblit could decide that there is insufficient evidence to proceed, or he could decide to indict - although in the latter case a hearing would first be held in which the prime minister's attorneys could put forward a defense, a process that could drag on for months.

"He's in a quandary," said Guy Lurie, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. "You need to keep the prosecution nonpolitical, and the decision he takes and the time frame should remain nonpolitical and professional."

Doing that requires maintaining a distance from the election process, Lurie said. "But the issue here is the public has the right to know, and the attorney general has this obligation towards the public." At the same time, he noted, "he also has an obligation to the suspects, who have the right to a fair criminal proceeding and fair trial."

Those considerations "don't push in the same direction," he said.

At stake is the reputation of the office itself, which risks being politicized in an ugly and polarized political climate.

Returning from a trip to Brazil on Thursday night, Netanyahu posted a video clip in which he denounced "thuggish and inhumane" pressure on the attorney general from the left wing and the media.

"They are trying to force the attorney general to intervene crudely in the elections by summoning me to a hearing, when it is known in advance that the hearing cannot be completed by the elections," he said.

The vitriol is seeping onto the streets.

"Mandelblit is a collaborator," read freshly sprayed graffiti on a wall alongside Israel's coastal highway this week after reports that he is moving to indict.

Two weeks earlier, the grave of Mandelblit's father was desecrated.

But others have praised the jurist. "Boom! Bibi is finished," tweeted former prime minister Ehud Barak, who has called for Netanyahu's resignation. "Scoop: Mandelblit is growing a spine."

Whatever Mandelblit decides, "it will tear the country apart," said Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "There's that democratic perspective that the public should know, but Netanyahu will always spin it, saying: 'It's the liberal, left-leaning elite that wants to oust me. They can't do it in the voting booth, so they are doing it in the legal system.' "

Netanyahu's attorneys have said that indicting Netanyahu, pending a hearing, before the election would be "inconceivable" because the public would not hear the case for his defense until after the election and the attorney general may be persuaded by it. "There have been many cases where hearing the answers of the other side led to the case being closed," a statement from his attorneys said.

David Amsalem, coalition chairman and one of Netanyahu's closest allies, called the prospect of an indictment "madness" and an apparent coup attempt by the attorney general's office and the police.

Mandelblit has responded that those attacking state institutions are seeking "to undermine the deepest foundations of the rule of law."

"Only the evidence will speak," he said Thursday at a conference in Haifa. There is "one compass that guides our path - the good of the country."

When he was appointed attorney general two years ago, Mandelblit was widely seen as a Netanyahu ally. A right-wing Orthodox Jew, he served as the chief military advocate general before becoming cabinet secretary in Netanyahu's government in 2013.

But political analysts consider it likely he will bring at least some charges against the prime minister. "With so many cases and so much evidence, he can't dismiss all of them," Hazan said.

Netanyahu has said that he will not quit if he is indicted. Under the law, he is not explicitly required to do so until convicted. And if he makes it to the election and wins a new term, his fifth, he could argue that he has been given a new mandate by the public despite the cases, refuse to step down and perhaps even try to push through a change to the law that prevents the indictment of a sitting prime minister.

A majority of Israelis, 51 percent, said Netanyahu should have to resign if he is indicted pending a hearing before the elections, according to a poll commissioned by the Jerusalem Post this week. But Netanyahu needs to win only a plurality to stay in office. Some 34 percent of respondents said he should not have to resign if indicted ahead of the vote.

A poll by the Israeli daily Maariv shows Netanyahu's Likud party winning 30 seats and remaining the largest party in the Knesset even if the prime minister is indicted. Still, analysts say, even some die-hard Likud supporters are likely to balk at electing an indicted leader.

If Netanyahu were to win despite an indictment, he would still need to form a coalition, and other political players are sensing weakness.

Former cabinet minister Gideon Saar has announced he will run in Likud primaries. Netanyahu's right-wing defense minister and justice minister, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, have split from their current bloc to form a new party.

"These are all people that are smelling that Netanyahu is not going to survive much longer and positioning themselves for a leadership battle in the right wing," Hazan said.

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