The prosecutors expected to run Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial are lesser known but potentially as powerful.
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a face mask, stands inside the courtroom at the Jerusalem District Court as his trial opens on May 24.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
The prosecutors expected to run Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial are not Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit and former state attorney Shai Nitzan. They are lesser known but potentially as powerful Deputy State Attorney Liat Ben Ari, Tel Aviv Economic Crimes Division Deputy Chief Yonatan Tadmor and Securities Crimes Chief Yehudit Tirosh.
Ben Ari is leading the team and argued on behalf of the prosecution at the opening of Netanyahu’s trial on May 24.
In court, she speaks with an obvious sense of confidence and seniority. This is something she has earned as the lead prosecutor against former prime minister Ehud Olmert during the Holyland trial in the Tel Aviv District Court.
At the same time, she is not nearly as aggressive and confrontational as former prosecutor Uri Korb, who prosecuted Olmert in the separate Jerusalem corruption trial.
Tadmor is a bit more aggressive when it comes to confronting witnesses. It is possible that he may handle some key cross-examinations even if Ben Ari gives the opening statement and makes the main strategic decisions.
In May 2017, Ben Ari made waves at an Israel Bar Association event when she gave the first hint that Netanyahu could be indicted in Case 1000, “the Illegal Gifts Affair,” even if there was no “quid pro quo,” meaning he did not give anything back directly in return.
More specifically, she said, “there is no such thing as gifts that are too small” to criminally investigate.
“When we are referring to presents worth hundreds of thousands of shekels,” she continued, “it is hard for me to accept that we are talking solely about presents between friends… I know that about myself and my friends, none of us receive presents of that value.”
Her statement was especially significant because it came around eight months before the police recommended indicting Netanyahu.
It was also long before the prime minister was even a suspect in Case 4000, “the Bezeq-Walla Affair” – the case which tipped Mandelblit over into being ready to confront Netanyahu.
From the beginning, this statement (despite Justice Ministry spokespeople attempts to qualify it) and any leaked reports made it clear that Ben Ari was taking a harsher stance on Netanyahu and on the question of bribery than the attorney general.
Even in the final indictment, Mandelblit rejected Ben Ari’s recommendation to indict Netanyahu for bribery in all three cases. Instead, he settled for the lesser charges of fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, the latter which is known as the “Yediot Ahronot-Yisrael Hayom Affair.”
Ben Ari also gave a revealing interview to the Israel Bar Association magazine in fall 2017 when she said Mandelblit was not “dragging his feet” in deciding the Netanyahu cases and was not blocking the police from following necessary leads.
At the time, the police were leaking these criticisms of Mandelblit because the probe had opened back in December 2016 and the attorney-general had vetoed certain paths to pursue Netanyahu as being a waste of time. At the same time, he was continuously requiring the police to supplement evidence they had gathered.
Some have theorized that Mandelblit brought Ben Ari into the case to stifle criticism from his left-flank that he was too Netanyahu-friendly. Ironically, this was the loudest criticism from 2016 until February 2019, when Mandelblit started to move against Netanyahu.
Ben Ari correctly predicted in a fall 2017 interview that the Case 1000 and 2000 police probes would be wrapped up by late 2017 or early 2018. However, she did not foresee Case 4000 blowing up in February 2018 as a factor that would delay Mandelblit’s overall decision.
Ben Ari also made headlines when she took an ill-advised family vacation in the middle of the Netanyahu pre-indictment hearings in October 2018.
She was criticized by Netanyahu’s lawyers and supporters, who said this showed she was not taking their arguments seriously or giving them a fair hearing.
Ben Ari was present for all the pre-scheduled hearings, but then Netanyahu’s lawyers asked for additional hearings.
According to Ben Ari, she had not taken a family vacation for more than a year. She had planned the family vacation far in advance around the scheduled pre-indictment hearings, without foreseeing that the defense would ask for additional dates on the spot.
Further, she and the prosecution pointed out that she had filed an extensive legal brief on all the issues for Mandelblit to consider, and that, in any event, he was the sole decider, not her.
In the middle of all of this, Mandelblit promoted Ben Ari from head of the Tel Aviv Economic Crimes Division to become a deputy to the State Attorney in September 2019 – despite push back from Netanyahu supporters.
He also tried to get Ben Ari approved as Nitzan’s successor in early 2020 after Nitzan stepped down. However, then-justice minister Amir Ohana, a close Netanyahu ally, opposed her candidacy due to her role in the Netanyahu cases.
After it was made public in late 2018 that Ben Ari was recommending a bribery charge, supporters of Netanyahu started to publicly attack her reputation.
Long dismissed charges that she had falsified a declaration to a labor court years before resurfaced, though Mandelblit immediately shot them down as having been closed by his predecessors.
Even prior to that time, Ben Ari was getting threats and former police chief Roni Alsheich alleged that she and other prosecutors were being followed. This led the police to provide her a protective detail.
Tadmor is viewed as taking at least as strong a view of the severity of Netanyahu’s alleged crimes as Ben Ari.
In a key internal debate before Mandelblit, the attorney-general’s deputy, Raz Nizri, pushed to close Case 2000, rather than file an indictment in that case.
Reportedly, Tadmor responded, “Case 2000 is an unambiguous bribery case. Nuni Mozes and Netanyahu were wheeling and dealing over legislation. There are recordings [of Netanyahu and Mozes’ alleged media bribery negotiations] and other evidence.”
Next, Tadmor reportedly turned toward Mandelblit, saying, “On what basis would you close this case? There is powerful evidence and a heavy public interest. Closing this case will cause problems for Case 4000,” since that case also relates to media bribery.
During sentencing arguments for Olmert in 2014, when the former prime ministers’ lawyers pleaded for leniency due to his service to the state, Tadmor demanded the sentences be harsh to “reverberate and deter” future corruption.
Tadmor added that being “the minister of ministers” should not get any of the convicted men (there were other public officials besides Olmert being sentenced as well) special treatment, “rather the opposite” should be true and an example should be made of them.
Tirosh has not been on this large a stage before.
But she is the expert on the securities portion of the case relating to Case 4000 and the alleged corrupt merger between Shaul Elovitch’s Bezeq with the company YES.
She has been working on criminal securities cases since 2001, after a period in private practice.
Tirosh took the lead on major cases against the company Psagot, against former judge Dan Cohen and against the company Siemens.