Bennett backs PM, but won’t support law to give him immunity from graft charges

New Right party leader vows to recommend Netanyahu as next leader despite planned indictment, pending hearing; says he’s ‘very concerned’ by polls showing right-wing majority gone

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Education Minister Naftali Bennett on November 13, 2017, in the Knesset. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Education Minister Naftali Bennett on November 13, 2017, in the Knesset. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

New Right party chief Naftali Bennett affirmed Sunday that his faction would support Benjamin Netanyahu as the next prime minister despite Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s Thursday announcement of corruption charges against the premier, pending a hearing.

“Until a final indictment is filed, there is nothing to discuss,” Bennett, a coalition partner of Netanyahu’s, told Israel Radio. “We will tell the president we recommend Netanyahu to form the government.”

If an indictment is eventually filed, New Right would then convene and make a decision, he added.

However, the education minister also said his party would not back an initiative to pass a law retroactively preventing Netanyahu from being put on trial.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at a New Right party press conference in Tel Aviv on February 7, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Such legislation, dubbed the “French law,” would state that a sitting prime minister cannot be investigated for offenses other than sex crimes, violence, drug abuse and security-related offenses, or if an investigation could damage national security or the economy.

“We are generally supportive and are willing to consider legislation that isn’t retroactive,” Bennett said, but added that his party “will not support a law that will affect the current situation.”

Mandelblit announced Thursday that Netanyahu will be charged with criminal wrongdoing in three separate cases against him, including bribery in the far-reaching Bezeq corruption probe, pending a hearing.

The decision marks the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister has been told he faces criminal charges, and casts a heavy shadow over Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.

Bennett said he was concerned by polls published after the indictment announcement which showed Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz surpassing Netanyahu’s popularity and indicated that Netanyahu’s Likud party could be unable to form a governing coalition after the April 9 elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A poll conducted for The Times of Israel before Thursday evening’s announcement also predicted that potential charges would remove Netanyahu’s ability to form a right-wing coalition.

“Some of the Likud voters have left the right-wing bloc and joined Gantz in the left,” Bennett said. “I am very concerned by the left-wing bloc’s growth at the expense of the right.”

Addressing those voters, Bennett said: “Don’t hurt the bloc — whoever doesn’t want to vote Likud should vote for New Right.”

Israel Resilience leader Benny Gantz delivers a statement to the media in Tel Aviv on February 28, 2019. (Flash90)

The announcement of Mandelblit’s intention to indict the prime minister, who long argued that the decision should be postponed until after the vote so that it would not affect public opinion, places Netanyahu’s legal situation front and center in the election campaign.

Responding to the announcement late Thursday, Netanyahu said there was “no explanation” for the timing, coming just 40 days before the April 9 election day, other than that it was part of a political vendetta designed to oust his right-wing government and install the left.

“For the first time in Israel’s history, a [criminal] hearing process was launched a few weeks, a few days before elections,” he charged. “Everyone can see that the timing is scandalous, intended to topple the right and help the left rise to power. There’s no other explanation for the insistence on this timing. This is their purpose, to flood the public with ridiculous charges against me without giving me the opportunity to disprove the charges until after the elections,” Netanyahu said Thursday night.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media in the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on February 28, 2019, hours after the attorney general announced plans to indict him for corruption, pending a hearing. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The prime minister has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and claims the investigations are part of efforts by the media and Israeli left to remove him from power, with the support of a dishonest police investigating team, overseen by a “weak” attorney general.

In Case 1000, involving accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for favors, Mandelblit said he intends to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust.

In Case 2000, involving accusations Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth, Mandelblit will seek to also charge the premier with fraud and breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery.

In Case 4000, widely seen as the most serious against the premier, Netanyahu is accused of having advanced regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, in exchange for positive coverage from its Walla news site. In that case, Mandelblit announced he intends to charge both Netanyahu and Elovitch with bribery.

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