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Israeli AG gives Netanyahu ultimatum on graft hearing

In a letter made public Sunday evening Avichai Mandelblit told Benjamin Netanyahu lawyers that if he wants to exercise his right to defend himself before possible indictment he must notify authorities by 10 May.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: AFP

JERUSALEM - Israel's attorney general has given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu until next week to confirm he wants a formal hearing to defend himself before corruption charges are filed against him.

In a letter made public Sunday evening, Avichai Mandelblit told Netanyahu's lawyers that if he wants to exercise his right to defend himself before possible indictment he must notify authorities by 10 May.

The hearing itself must then take place no later than 10 July.

Netanyahu's lawyers have been protesting non-payment of their fees to date and are refusing to collect the case files until they are paid, the letter said.

The prime minister wants to raise a $2 million from two American businessmen - his cousin Nathan Milikowsky and friend Spencer Partrich - to pay his attorneys, Israeli media reported.

However, the government committee that vets requests by government officials to accept money from outside sources has twice rejected his petition.

In February, Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery, following up on police recommendations.

At Netanyahu’s request, evidentiary material was only made available to lawyers the day after the 9 April general election, for fear that files would leak and sway voters.

Netanyahu, who won a fifth term in office and now faces the prospect of becoming the first sitting Israeli premier to be indicted, has called corruption allegations against him a "witch hunt".

"The issue of the fees," Mandelblit said in the letter, "does not justify any delay in transfer of the most important material to the prime minister or his lawyers and in any event does not effect the date of the hearing".

In what is considered the most serious of the cases, Netanyahu is accused of advocating regulatory benefits allegedly granted to telecommunications firm Bezeq in exchange for positive news coverage for himself from a media company owned by the then Bezeq CEO.

Another involves Netanyahu allegedly seeking a secret deal with the publisher of Israel's top-selling newspaper Yediot Aharonot to ensure positive coverage in return for pushing forward a law that would have limited the circulation of a rival paper.

The third case involves suspicions the premier and his family received luxury gifts such as cigars and champagne from wealthy individuals, including Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, in exchange for financial or personal favours.

Netanyahu denies the accusations and calls them an attempt by his political enemies to force him from office.

Even if he is charged, Netanyahu, 69, would not legally be forced to withdraw until he had been convicted and exhausted the appeals process.

Analysts believe he will fight the charges through every level of the courts, which could take years.

His election rival Benny Gantz accused the premier and those around him of becoming "addicted to the pleasures of power, corruption and hedonism".

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