Edelstein: Netanyahu prepared to take leave of absence if indicted

Knesset speaker insists PM ready to ‘pay this price’ to form government, says Israel must not be ‘dragged to third elections’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein arrive for a joint event of the Knesset and the US Congress, celebrating 50 years since Jerusalem's reunification, at the Chagall state hall in the Knesset, on June 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein arrive for a joint event of the Knesset and the US Congress, celebrating 50 years since Jerusalem's reunification, at the Chagall state hall in the Knesset, on June 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Acting speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein said on Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be prepared to take a leave of absence if he were indicted in the graft cases against him.

Edelstein was asked in an interview with Kan public radio: “According to your knowledge, if there is an indictment, it would be appropriate to take a leave of absence?”

“That’s the outline that [President Reuven Rivlin] presented and Netanyahu agreed to this outline,” Edelstein said.

“Netanyahu agreed to take a leadership step that isn’t simple — to take a leave of absence in order to establish a government,” Edelstein said. “The prime minister is prepared to pay this price to establish a government.”

Edelstein’s comments came hours before the 22nd Knesset was set to be sworn in, in a ceremony almost identical to the swearing in of the 21st Knesset just five months ago, and with the prospect of a third election in under a year looming amid a logjam in coalition talks.

In an attempt to solve the impasse, Rivlin has proposed a unity government between Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party in which power would be equally divided with Netanyahu and Gantz each serving two years as prime minister. Rivlin has also implied that Netanyahu could take an open-ended leave of absence if or when he is indicted in one or more of the three criminal probes in which he faces charges, including one count of bribery, pending a hearing.

Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority. A legal change to the position of “interim prime minister” would theoretically allow Netanyahu to take a leave of absence if he is formally charged and enable Gantz to avoid serving in a government with a prime minister who is under indictment.

But the two parties have been unable to agree on who would be prime minister first under such an arrangement, among other issues.

Knesset Chairman Yuli Edelstein in the assembly hall of the Knesset, June 12, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Edelstein on Thursday called Rivlin’s plan “bold,” and blamed Blue and White for its expected failure.

“Blue and White rejected it probably because of internal reasons, not because of its essence,” Edelstein said, in apparent allusion to Likud accusations that Gantz’s Number 2, Yair Lapid, has been thwarting the talks. “What’s important to Likud right now, at least for myself and my friends, is to establish a government, not to drag the country to elections for a third time.”

He said that Likud was prepared to do all that it could to prevent another election, but stopped short of saying that the party would replace Netanyahu as its leader, and would not confirm or deny that he would run as a candidate to head the party if it held a leadership primary.

He said that the party would not put forth another candidate besides Netanyahu for a rotation agreement if the mandate to form the government went to Blue and White.

Edelstein also said that he was prepared to agree to a rotation deal as speaker to help prevent a third round of elections.

Netanyahu has not said he would step down if charged, and, under Israeli law, may not be required to do so. Many legal scholars believe a prime minister could remain in power even if convicted, and would only be required to resign once all appeal processes were exhausted. Blue and White has said that it will not partner with Likud in a coalition unless Netanyahu steps down.

On Wednesday, at the first of Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearings, his defense team presented state prosecution officials with new arguments and fresh evidence in the cases, which they asserted “completely contradict the claims in the charge sheet.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attorney Ram Caspi arrives at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem for a pre-indictment hearing on the prime minister’s corruption investigations, on October 2, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Officials in the state prosecution told Channel 12, however, that they were not surprised by the evidence and arguments presented by the defense, and were familiar with most of the material.

The day’s session focused on Case 4000, also known as the Bezeq case, which involves suspicions that Netanyahu, while serving as communications minister, made regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, then controlling shareholder of the Bezeq telecommunications group, in return for ongoing positive coverage on Elovitch’s Walla news site. Netanyahu faces prosecution for fraud and trust and bribery in that case — the most serious of the three against him.

Netanyahu did not accompany his lawyers as they arrived for the hearing at Justice Ministry headquarters in Jerusalem, and has not said whether he will appear on any of the other days of deliberations. The hearing recommenced on Thursday.

In February, Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu pending the hearing process. The prime minister faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in the other two cases against him.

Netanyahu denies all the allegations and claims they constitute a witch hunt by his political opposition, media, police and state prosecutors to remove him from office.

President Reuven Rivlin, right, tasks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a new government, during a press conference a the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)

Netanyahu was charged by Rivlin last week with trying to form a government based on the strength of his pact with right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties to negotiate as a bloc of 55 MKs, and given 28 days to do so. Gantz, his rival, heads a bloc of 54 MKs from the center, left and Arab parties, but the 10 Arab MKs in that group would not join a Gantz-led coalition. Neither candidate has a clear path to a 61-strong Knesset majority.

If nothing changes in the parties’ positions, Netanyahu is expected to tell Rivlin that he is unable to form a majority government. Rivlin would probably then invite Gantz to try to build a majority, but his Blue and White party considers it extremely unlikely that Knesset members from Netanyahu’s Likud would revolt against their leader, and thus see no real path for Gantz to form a government.

If Gantz also fails, Rivlin could seek a third candidate. If, after 21 days, this effort also fails, Rivlin would initiate a process leading to new elections.

Netanyahu was meeting Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman on Thursday morning to discuss the latter’s proposal for a unity government.

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