Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday declined a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to delay his pre-indictment hearing in the three corruption cases against him.
Netanyahu had asked the attorney general for a delay a day earlier, citing the recent April 9 elections, and the new election campaign underway for the September 17 vote.
“The dissolution of the Knesset and the holding of new elections can’t in and of themselves constitute a consideration that justifies delaying the hearing date in the investigations concerning the prime minister,” a top adviser to Mandelblit, Gil Limon, said in a letter Thursday to Netanyahu’s lawyers.
Limon noted that Netanyahu was given six months to prepare for the hearing, from when the evidence became available to Netanyahu’s lawyers in April to the scheduled date of the hearing on October 2-3.
Limon also emphasized the state prosecution’s general policy when conducting criminal investigations concerning politicians “of separation, as much as possible, between the legal track of the criminal cases and the political track, with its characteristic instability.”
This policy should hold true “in routine times, and during elections,” Limon wrote.
Mandelblit’s refusal to delay the hearing was expected, and the Ynet news site reported Wednesday that the premier was already preparing to petition the High Court in response.
Netanyahu’s attorneys must notify the attorney general’s office by June 10 if he intends to move forward with the hearing. If Netanyahu chooses not to go through with a hearing, during which he would have the chance to persuade Mandelblit not to prosecute him, Mandelblit could file indictments in the prime minister’s criminal probes within days or weeks.
Last month, the attorney general agreed to postpone the hearing — originally scheduled for July 10 — to early October. Netanyahu’s lawyers had asked for a full-year delay, arguing that the volume of evidence was too large to review in three months, but that request was rejected.
Mandeblit announced in February that he intends to charge Netanyahu, pending a hearing, with fraud and breach of trust in three separate corruption cases, as well as with bribery in one of them.
Netanyahu is widely reported to have tried to build a coalition after April 9’s election in which his Likud MKs and their allies would initiate or back legislative efforts to enable him to avoid prosecution — first by easing his path to gaining immunity via the Knesset, and then by canceling the Supreme Court’s authority to overturn such immunity.
The latter change would be achieved as part of a wide-ranging reform of the Supreme Court’s role, under which justices would be denied their current authority to strike down legislation, and Knesset and government decisions, deemed unconstitutional. Plans for this “override” legislation have been described as marking a potential constitutional revolution that critics warn could shatter the checks and balances at the heart of Israeli democracy.
Last week, as Netanyahu struggled to cobble together a majority coalition, his associates were said to have warned him that snap elections would likely deny him the time needed to pass legislation shielding him from prosecution.
Nonetheless, when he concluded that he could not muster a majority by the May 29 deadline for presenting his coalition to the Knesset, he pushed through a vote to disperse the 21st Knesset, which had only been sworn in a month earlier, and set Israel on the path to new elections on September 17. He chose that course rather than allow for a different Knesset member, possibly opposition leader Benny Gantz, to have a turn at trying to build a majority coalition.
After Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu, the prime minister’s attorneys requested, and were granted, that the case files not be handed over prior to the April 9 election in order to prevent information from leaking to the media and affecting the vote.
But after the election, the lawyers refrained for another month from collecting the material, citing a dispute over their fees. They have been accused of engaging in delay tactics.
Netanyahu denies all the allegations against him, and has claimed they stem from a witch hunt supported by the left-wing opposition, the media, the police and the state prosecution, headed by a “weak” attorney general.