AG said to view ‘significant legal difficulties’ for Netanyahu to form new gov’t
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AG said to view ‘significant legal difficulties’ for Netanyahu to form new gov’t

Justice Ministry says no decision made yet; Benny Gantz vows to continue efforts to form new government and avoid sending country to third election in a year

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit holds a press conference at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem, announcing his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases, November 21, 2019. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit holds a press conference at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem, announcing his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases, November 21, 2019. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)

Amid reports that the attorney general was likely to rule that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should not be tasked with forming a new government due to the announcement of criminal charges against him, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz on Friday said he was making ongoing efforts to build a coalition before the country is forced to go to a third election in less than a year.

After a report in the Globes newspaper Thursday evening said State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan believes Netanyahu cannot begin a new term with the charges hanging over him, the Ynet news site on Friday reported that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was inclined to agree.

The website quoted unnamed legal officials as saying the attorney general would likely issue his legal opinion as early as next week, ruling that although the prime minister is not compelled to give up his position due to the indictment, there are “significant legal difficulties” in him receiving a mandate to form a new government under the circumstances.

This would mean that the attorney general — who is both the head of Israel’s state prosecution and the government’s chief legal adviser — would not necessarily be able to defend Netanyahu being tasked with forming a coalition if petitions were made to the High Court of Justice.

In the past, the same phrase of “significant legal difficulties” used by attorney generals in other legal opinions regarding the appointment of senior officials facing legal difficulties was enough to convince Netanyahu to thwart their selection. This was the case regarding Yoav Gallant, who was a nominee for IDF chief of staff in 2010 and Moshe “Chico” Edri, who was tapped to serve as police chief last year.

The Justice Ministry said in a statement that Mandelblit “has not yet dealt with the various consequences of the decision to file an indictment, and has certainly reached no decision in the matter. Any reports on the matter are speculation and the sole responsibility of those reporting.”

With both Netanyahu and Gantz having failed to cobble together a coalition following the September election, the Knesset is currently in a 21-day period, ending at midnight on December 11, in which any candidate receiving the support of 61 MKs can be tasked with forming a government. Failing that, a new election must be called — one in which Netanyahu has made clear he intends to run, and one that could yield a very similar result to that of the two elections already held this year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting of the Right-wing parties bloc at the Knesset on November 20, 2019. Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Responding to the Ynet report, former justice minister and current New Right MK Ayelet Shaked said in a statement that “there is no reason” why Netanyahu should not be able to be allowed to accept the mandate to form the government if given the support of 61 MKs during the 21-day period.

“Only members of Knesset members should decide who will be given the mandate,” she said.

At the same time, Shaked made a point of defending the attorney general amid growing verbal attacks since he announced his intention to indict Netanyahu.

“Even if we disagree and there have indeed been disagreements regarding some of his decisions, one should know that his motives are completely professional,” she added, calling Mandelblit an “honest person.”

Meanwhile, Gantz in a Friday Facebook post said he was continuing efforts to muster a Knesset majority to support him as prime minister to prevent an election.

“In the negotiations I have carried out to date, I was rightfully willing to make concessions, without compromising the values and principles upon which I decided to enter politics,” Gantz continued. “Much to my regret, in spite of my best efforts to form a broad, liberal unity government, Netanyahu has systematically refused to let go of the obstructionist ‘immunity bloc’ that he has assembled for himself. While it may be critical for Netanyahu, the bloc has damaged the Israeli people’s most basic interests and is inconsistent with the will of the Israeli voter.”

The Blue and White chairman added that the decision to refuse a unity government with Netanyahu “under the given circumstances” was his alone.

Referring to recent attacks on the legal establishment, the attorney general and state prosecutor’s office, which Netanyahu on Thursday night accused of orchestrating a “coup” against him, Gantz said,  “I want to express my backing for law enforcement bodies. Continue to do your job.”

Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrate outside PM Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on November 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/FLASH90)

The Blue and White chairman added he would hold a press conference in Tel Aviv at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday evening to further discuss the matter.

The Blue and White party on Friday morning called on Mandelblit to order Netanyahu to immediately relinquish the four ministerial posts he currently holds. As of today, Netanyahu holds the agriculture, health, social affairs and diaspora affairs portfolios. According to legal precedent, a minister cannot continue to serve under indictment.

Both the Labor Party and the Movement for Quality Government said they would appeal to the High Court to force the prime minister to step down, with further petitions expected. Though the law technically allows a prime minister to remain in power so long as a final court ruling convicting him has not been given, that law has never actually been tested before — as Netanyahu is the first leader in Israel’s history to face criminal charges while in office — and the courts will likely be compelled to debate the issue.

Meanwhile, a growing number of right-wing politicians issued statements of support for the embattled leader Friday.

Several of Netanyahu’s political allies quickly closed ranks in his defense on Thursday, backing his claim that police and state prosecutors were attempting a “coup” to remove him from power using false corruption charges.

Blue and White’s Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid during a faction meeting at the Knesset on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A number of lawmakers, however, remained silent or waited hours to come out in support of Netanyahu, in the latest sign that his hold over the Likud party may be slipping.

Netanyahu, in an emotional and defiant address, accused prosecutors and justice officials of a “tainted process,” and vowed to “continue to lead Israel… in accordance with the law,” shortly after Mandelblit announced he would charge the premier with criminal wrongdoing in three separate cases against him, including bribery in the far-reaching Bezeq corruption probe.

Despite overseeing the Justice Ministry which issued the charge sheet, Likud’s Amir Ohana indicated that he believed the prime minister was innocent of all charges. Similar statements of support were issued by over a dozen other Likud MKs.

Several dozen Netanyahu supporters rallied outside the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem in the evening, facing off against a smaller crowd of people celebrating the charges against the premier and calling for him to resign.

Senior Likud party lawmaker MK Gideon Sa’ar speaks during the conference of the Israeli Television News Company in Tel Aviv on September 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Some party officials criticized Netanyahu, though none would speak on the record.

“We need to understand that the Netanyahu era is over and work toward change,” one senior Likud official told Channel 12, calling for Netanyahu’s ouster as party leader.

If new elections are held, Netanyahu appears set to face a leadership challenge for the first time since 2014, in the form of senior Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar who announced a bid to challenge to Netanyahu earlier this week.

Hebrew media on Thursday night said another unnamed Likud lawmaker was planning to throw their hat in the ring if the party goes to primaries.

Mandelblit’s decision marked the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister faces criminal charges, casting a heavy shadow over Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, and his ongoing attempts to remain in power.

The announcement did not include the official filing of an indictment, as the Knesset must first decide on lifting Netanyahu’s procedural immunity, a process that — due to the current political gridlock and the lack of a functioning government — could drag on for months.

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