Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said Monday that Benjamin Netanyahu can continue to hold office as a caretaker prime minister despite criminal charges against him, but left open the question of whether he can be tasked with forming a new government.
On Thursday, Mandelblit announced criminal charges against Netanyahu in three separate cases. The announcement marked the first time in Israel’s history a sitting prime minister has faced indictment on criminal counts. Netanyahu has vowed to stay in office while he fights the charges, which he has decried as a politically motivated “attempted coup.”
“There is no practical relevance for a prime minister’s resignation during an interim government,” Mandelblit wrote in a legal opinion, since the law states that a prime minister who resigns continues to serve as prime minister until a new government is formed.
“Therefore, it is clear that in the situation of a caretaker government, it cannot be said that a prime minister is legally obligated to resign from that post,” he added in the legal opinion, released as a Justice Ministry statement.
A panel of top legal officials that has been discussing the implications of the Netanyahu indictment had yet to debate whether the prime minister must relinquish his other ministerial portfolios, as well as the crucial question of whether he may form a government in the future, the statement said.
The attorney general said the law does not adequately address the specific circumstances when a premier must take a leave of absence, and cited a High Court ruling in 2008 that said the question was not a legal question but a political, public one.
“Therefore, in the current circumstances, the question of a temporary leave of absence should likewise be left in the political-public sphere and there is no justification at this time for the attorney general to rule that the prime minister is unable to carry out his duties,” the statement said.
At the moment, according to Monday’s statement, the team will not discuss whether Netanyahu can be tasked with forming a new government, saying that scenario is currently theoretical.
Though the law apparently 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 and the courts will likely be compelled to debate the issue.
Political opponents and others have urged Netanyahu to step down, arguing that he cannot effectively run the country while fighting criminal charges.
On Sunday, the High Court of Justice rejected a petition filed by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel advocacy group, seeking Netanyahu’s removal from office, on the grounds that it should have first formally asked the prime minister how he intended to respond to the coming corruption charges before filing its petition.
The Labor party has also said it would petition the High Court.
The indictment announcement came as Netanyahu is also grappling with major political challenges, having twice failed to form a government after consecutive elections and now facing an internal challenge in his Likud party.
The Knesset was tasked with choosing a lawmaker to assemble a government after both Netanyahu and his centrist rival Benny Gantz both failed to do so, raising the prospect of a third round of elections in less than a year. If that doesn’t happen within a 21-day period ending December 11, the Knesset will be dissolved and elections will be called.
Netanyahu, in an emotional and defiant address last week, 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 fraud and breach of trust in three cases against him and bribery in the far-reaching Bezeq corruption probe.
The announcement did not include the official filing of an indictment, as the Knesset must first decide on whether to grant Netanyahu procedural immunity, a process that — due to the current political gridlock and the lack of a functioning government — could drag on for months.