It won’t change probe, but police bill could protect Netanyahu from public

Proposed legislation fast-tracked by Likud is seen by critics as a devilishly ‘brilliant exercise’ to silence the attorney general. We’ll soon see if they’re right

Marissa Newman

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Chief of Police Roni Alsheikh at an inauguration ceremony marking the opening of a new police station in the northern Arab town of Jisr az-Zarqa. November 21, 2017. (Basel Awidat/ Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Chief of Police Roni Alsheikh at an inauguration ceremony marking the opening of a new police station in the northern Arab town of Jisr az-Zarqa. November 21, 2017. (Basel Awidat/ Flash90)

In its current form, the so-called police recommendations bill would be unlikely to obstruct, delay, or significantly shake up the two police investigations into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for alleged corruption.

That’s because, as of Monday’s draft, the bill permits the attorney general to continue consultations with police on whether to press charges in existing cases. Longstanding procedures by which police present the scope of their evidence to prosecutors upon concluding their probes would remain intact in Netanyahu’s cases, according to a new clause in the bill inserted at the behest of Moshe Kahlon’s coalition Kulanu party.

But the bill — which passed its first reading in the Knesset plenum late on Monday, and is likely to be revised further before the second and third readings that would pass it into law — could spare the prime minister a barrage of public criticism when police wrap up the two investigations and the investigators’ conclusions on his alleged guilt might otherwise grace the nightly news broadcasts.

And that, bill sponsor Likud MK David Amsalem suggested on Monday, is precisely the point.

“I’m coming from the perspective of the leaks,” Amsalem said. “The goal of the law is to prevent the publication of negative recommendations, after which it becomes evident they were not justified and the cases are closed.”

MK David Amsalem (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The bill has faced opposition from police, the state attorney, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit — who will ultimately decide whether to press charges against Netanyahu, and who is reportedly somewhat mollified by the new Kahlon clause — but is nonetheless being fast-tracked by Likud loyalists. The timing is seen as constituting a concentrated effort to shield Netanyahu from an embarrassing and anticipated police estimation of his guilt.

On Monday, when a vote on the bill in the Amsalem-headed Interior Affairs Committee was held up for two hours, Netanyahu’s chief of staff Yoav Horovitz was spotted in Amsalem’s office. He later denied he was involved in brokering a compromise on the legislation.

Leaks vs. recommendations

In his remarks, Amsalem — who both wrote the bill and chaired the committee where it was approved Monday for a first Knesset vote — distinguished between the two elements of the bill: The first was to criminalize police recommendations to prosecutors on whether there is an evidentiary basis to indict suspects. It would ban police from issuing a written recommendation in cases overseen by a prosecutor, namely high-profile, sensitive cases, such as into public officials.

This portion, as it stands, would not apply to Netanyahu’s cases, as it includes an explicit caveat that prosecutors may continue to consult with police in cases that have already been opened.

Although police do not recommend outright whether to file indictments, they do provide prosecutors with a summary that notes whether there is sufficient evidence that a crime was committed.

The second dimension of the legislation, noted Amsalem, is the leaks. That section says that any police officer, investigator, or prosecutor who publicizes a recommendation on the prospects of an indictment, or hands it over to an unauthorized figure, will be jailed for a year. The attorney general will outline how to implement this in separate directives published within 90 days from the passage of the bill into law, according to the softened version of the bill.

Whether or not this applies to Netanyahu was the source of a fierce dispute on Monday, and remains unclear.

From the opposition, some interpreted it as a backhanded way to make it illegal for the attorney general to discuss the cases or inform the public about their progress.

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

“What is happening here is one of the most brilliant legal exercises ever seen in the Knesset,” said opposition Joint (Arab) List MK Dov Hanin. “The situation today is that the attorney general can publicize recommendations. According to the new clause, he can’t.  This is a dramatic and radical process. You are silencing the attorney general. You are preventing him from publicizing.”

Meretz’s Tamar Zandberg was more succinct, calling it “a corrupt bill to protect a corrupt prime minister.”

But a representative from the attorney general’s office told the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee last week that it opposed the police’s position on investigations being made public. Moreover, there were already directives in place — but not implemented — providing for prison terms of up to three years for leakers of information from police investigations, according to attorney Amit Marari.

“There is no dispute that publicizing the [police] recommendations is wrong,” Marari said last week. “There is [already] a clear directive not to leak.”

What the attorney general was opposed to was obstructing the legal process by forging a divide between police and prosecutors, he said.

That directive was touted last week by Amsalem, who noted his proposed one-year prison term was less severe; he did not, however, explain why it is necessary if it is already on the books.

And while the opposition accused the government of stripping the attorney general of his authority, others, such as Kulanu leader Kahlon, continue to insist that the bill actually empowers Mandelblit further and to stress that it does not apply to the prime minister’s cases.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The criticism is “unfounded and absurd,” Kahlon said at a press conference on Monday afternoon. “From the first moment, I said we’d support the recommendations bill and at the same time I said it won’t apply to Netanyahu’s investigations.”

“Regarding ongoing investigations, including the investigation into the prime minister, the attorney general will decide. He is clean, honest, and professional. We are relying on him,” added Kahlon.

All the legislators are doing, argued Kahlon, is putting the ball in the attorney general’s court.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, speaks at the Military Lawyers Conference, in Tel Aviv, April 25, 2017. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

The complex position of the attorney general under the provisions of the bill — tasked with deciding how and when to implement the law, while also ostensibly constrained by it to not discuss the investigations —  raises questions as to how he could possibly proceed without conflict.

But in its current version, it does appear to leave the door open for Mandelblit (should he dare) to simply issue a directive after the law passes that it may not apply retroactively — unraveling any and all attempts to apply the law to the prime minister.

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