Sources: AG would have to oppose PM in office when on trial

Judicial officials warn PM will have ‘problem’ staying on if eventually charged

TV report quotes sources saying AG seeks to announce decision on Netanyahu corruption cases before elections; no issues with PM remaining in power during hearing process

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on December 10, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on December 10, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won’t be legally required to resign if Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announces he will be indicted pending a hearing, but there will be a “problem” should he refuse to step down if he is ultimately charged, senior judicial sources told Channel 10 news Tuesday.

The unnamed officials were responding to Netanyahu saying Monday that he would not resign if the attorney general decides to press charges against him, pending a hearing, before elections.

Asked during a press conference in Brazil, where he is on a visit, how he would proceed if summoned by the attorney general for a hearing, which is the final step before charges are filed, Netanyahu said: “If that happens, I won’t resign.”

He said he was not required to do so under the law, and that he remains convinced that the three corruption cases against him will yield “nothing.”

Should Mandelblit decide to press charges against Netanyahu, he will announce the indictment pending a hearing, after which charges could be filed with a court.

Channel 10 TV quoted legal sources as saying the hearing process should take about a year, and that there would be no legal issues if Netanyahu chooses to continue serving as premier during that time.

“The public should judge whether it is appropriate for a prime minister to keep serving when there’s a decision to hold a hearing,” they were quoted as saying.

“Therefore, the attorney general is making great efforts to make a decision before the elections,” they added. “The problem will arise if Netanyahu refuses to resign in a scenario in which an indictment is filed against him.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to reporters in Rio de Janeiro on December 31, 2018. (Screen capture/YouTube)

The sources contended that in such a case, the matter would be referred to the High Court of Justice, which would have to take a stand. The law currently does not state whether a prime minister has to step down when facing an indictment.

“Under a final indictment, we believe the attorney general will be forced to oppose the continued tenure of the prime minister,” the sources said. “We can’t have a precedent that a prime minister serves while being tried in court, no matter what offense he is accused of — if he will be.”

The requirement for the attorney general to provide a hearing for a suspect before a final decision to press charges against him, Netanyahu argued in his Monday address, exists precisely so that the suspect can tell his side of the story. “The hearing doesn’t end until my side is heard,” he said.

“And therefore it is not logical to open a hearing process before elections if you can’t finish it before elections.”

“Imagine what happens if you oust a prime minister before the end of the hearing process, and at the end of the hearing it is decided to close the  case,” he said. “That would be absurd, and a terrible blow to democracy.”

He added: “In a democracy, leaders are chosen through a vote, not through a partially completed legal process.”

Foreign minister Tzipi Livni and prime minister Ehud Olmert, pictured at a cabinet meeting in 2008; Shaul Mofaz is to Livni's right. (photo credit Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)
Foreign minister Tzipi Livni and prime minister Ehud Olmert, pictured at a cabinet meeting in 2008; Shaul Mofaz is to Livni’s right. (photo credit Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)

Reminded that he had said of Ehud Olmert, 10 years ago, that a prime minister “up to his neck” in corruption allegations had no “public or moral mandate to make fateful decisions for the state of Israel” and that there was a concern that he might be swayed by narrow “personal interests,” Netanyahu said the situations were not comparable.

“The quotation you gave related to political steps that Olmert intended to take [in negotiations with the Palestinians] on the eve of elections, which in my opinion was unacceptable … in the situation that he was in,” said Netanyahu.

But “I didn’t say that he had to resign… I said he couldn’t initiate a major political plan on the eve of elections… I stand by that opinion. I don’t intend to initiate a major political initiative on the eve of elections.”

Netanyahu’s public comments followed reported remarks last week in which he was said to have told his inner circle that he believed Mandelblit “won’t dare” to announce charges against him before the national ballot.

Even if he is indicted, Netanyahu — who has been implicated in three criminal cases — will not cave to public pressure to step down as premier and fight the charges as a private citizen, the report in the Israel Hayom daily said Thursday. Instead, if elected, he will remain in the top job throughout his public trial, the paper, considered pro-Netanyahu, quoted him as saying.

The law does not clearly state that a prime minister who has been indicted must resign. Rather, it says he must step down only after he has been convicted of an offense that carries moral turpitude, like bribery or breach of trust, and the appeal process has been exhausted.

The Knesset can ask the prime minister to step down before that process is complete, but if it does not, he can, in theory, remain in office.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2015. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

According to the Israel Hayom report, Netanyahu is planning on doing just that, and would even fight a potential High Court decision that he must step down.

Last week’s announcement that elections will be held in April — seven months earlier than planned — came as Mandelblit began reviewing the criminal cases against Netanyahu, marking the most high-stakes stage yet of a several-year legal entanglement that could upend the country’s political system. Reports before the announcement of early elections suggested he intended to make a decision on whether to indict the prime minister by mid-April.

Raoul Wootliff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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