In his most specific comments to date on the prospect of corruption cases forcing his ouster, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said he would not resign if the attorney general decides on pressing charges against him before elections.
Asked during a press conference in Brazil, where he is on a visit, how he would proceed if summoned by the attorney general for a hearing, which is final step before charges are filed, Netanyahu said: “If that happens, I won’t resign.”
He said he was not required to do so under the law, and that he remains convinced that the three corruption cases against him will yield “nothing.”
“Israel is a country of law, and the law does not require that a prime minister resign during the process of a hearing,” he said.
Should Attorney General Avichai Mandeblit decide to press charges against Netanyahu, he would announce the indictment pending a hearing, after which charges could be filed with a court.
The requirement for the attorney general to provide a hearing for a suspect before a final decision to press charges against him, Netanyahu said, exists precisely so that the suspect’s side of the story is heard. “The hearing doesn’t end until my side is heard,” he said.
“And therefore it is not logical to open a hearing process before elections if you can’t finish it before elections.”
“Imagine what happens if you oust a prime minister before the end of the hearing process, and at the end of the hearing it is decided to close the case,” he said. “That would be absurd, and a terrible blow to democracy.”
He added: “In a democracy, leaders are chosen through a vote, not through a partially completed legal process.”
Reminded that he had said of Ehud Olmert, 10 years ago, that a prime minister “up to his neck” in corruption allegations had no “public or moral mandate to make fateful decisions for the state of Israel” and that there was a concern that he might be swayed by narrow “personal interests,” Netanyahu said the situations were not comparable.
“The quotation you gave related to political steps that Olmert intended to take [in negotiations with the Palestinians] on the eve of elections, which in my opinion was unacceptable … in the situation that he was in,” said Netanyahu.
But “I didn’t say that he had to resign… I said he couldn’t initiate a major political plan on the eve of elections… I stand by that opinion. I don’t intend to initiate a major political initiative on the eve of elections.”
Netanyahu’s public comments on Monday followed reported remarks last week in which he was said to have told his inner circle that he believed Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit “won’t dare” to announce charges against him before the national ballot.
Even if he is indicted, Netanyahu — who has been implicated in three criminal cases — will not cave to public pressure to step down as premier and fight the charges as a private citizen, the report in the Israel Hayom daily said Thursday. Instead, if elected, he will remain in the top job throughout his public trial, the paper, considered pro-Netanyahu, quoted him as saying.
The law does not clearly state that a prime minister who has been indicted must resign. Rather, it says he must step down only after he has been convicted of an offense that carries moral turpitude, like bribery or breach of trust, and the appeal process has been exhausted.
The Knesset can ask the prime minister to step down before that process is complete, but if it does not, he can, in theory, remain in office.
According to the Israel Hayom report, Netanyahu is planning on doing just that, and would even fight a potential Supreme Court decision that he must step down.
In the 1993 corruption case of Shas politician Aryeh Deri (who was then, and is again now, interior minister), then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin did not want to oust him even after an indictment was filed by the attorney general. However, an appeal to the Supreme Court left him with no choice.
“There’s no similar determination with regard to the prime minister, and it can be argued both ways whether it applies to the prime minister,” Israeli criminal and constitutional law expert Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer told The Times of Israel this week, adding that Netanyahu would likely challenge a decision by the court for him to step down.
According to the Law on Knesset members’ immunity, the Knesset can give an MK parliamentary immunity from prosecution if it is persuaded that they are a victim of a vendetta.
Knesset members are permitted, within 30 days of being indicted, to ask the Knesset to give them immunity from criminal prosecution for various reasons, including that the offense allegedly committed was done in the fulfillment of the MK’s legislative duties or “the indictment is not issued in good faith or as a consequence of discrimination,” a claim Netanyahu has already made by alleging a conspiracy against him.
Last week’s announcement that elections will be held in April — seven months earlier than planned — came as Mandelblit began reviewing the criminal cases against Netanyahu, marking the most high-stakes stage yet of a several-year legal entanglement that could upend the country’s political system. Reports before the announcement of early elections suggested he intended to make a decision on whether to indict the prime minister by mid-April.
According to the Israel Hayom report, senior Likud sources also warned this week that if a decision to indict Netanyahu is made before the elections, Mandelblit “will become the target of a merciless attack” by party officials.
“There will be no holds barred and no effort to safeguard his honor. The entire Likud campaign will be directed against him,” the paper cited them as warning.
Responding to the report, the Likud party put out a statement denying Netanyahu or anyone in the Likud had made the statements.
“No one in Likud is threatening the attorney general,” a Likud statement said, alleging instead that “threats and pressures to indict Netanyahu at any cost and in any case come daily from the left and the media.”
Initial reports after Monday’s announcement that elections would be held in April, citing shadowy unnamed legal officials, said Mandelblit would likely delay any such announcement to avoid the suggestion he was intervening in Israel’s political process. Later reports, however, quoting similar anonymous officials, said he could make a decision by February.
After the election, the Likud sources also told Israel Hayom on Thursday, Netanyahu would condition entry into his coalition on parties promising to remain in the government even if he is indicted at a later date. The ultra-Orthodox, Jewish Home, and Yisrael Beytenu parties are reportedly seen by Likud as certain to make such a promise, while new parties headed by Benny Gantz and Orli Levy-Abecasis, Kulanu, Yesh Atid, and even the Zionist Union would all be “possible options for coalition partners” if they make similar declarations.
Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon and Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid have both said publicly on a number of occasions that Netanyahu cannot continue to lead the country if he is charged.
Police have recommended Netanyahu be indicted in each of the three probes against him. Of the cases in which Netanyahu is suspected of illegal activity, the one known as Case 4000 is considered by the State Prosecutor’s Office to be the most serious, according to Israeli television reports.
In that case, Netanyahu is suspected of having advanced regulatory decisions as communications minister and prime minister from 2015 to 2017 that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm, in exchange for positive coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site.
The prosecutor’s office last week told Mandeblit the allegations constituted “a clear case of bribery,” according to Hadashot TV news. Recommendations for bribery charges were also made in the cases known as 1000 and 2000, though those were seen as less clear-cut, according to the report.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving benefits worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors, including Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, in exchange for assistance on various issues.
Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister hobble a rival daily newspaper, the Sheldon Adelson-backed freebie Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
Netanyahu, who has been in office since 2009, has denied wrongdoing and portrays the cases as part of a conspiracy against him encompassing the left, the media, and law enforcement officials.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.