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Justice minister says bill barring indicted PM is not targeted at Netanyahu

In TV interview, Gideon Sa’ar says he coordinated release of legislation’s text with Bennett, though PM has yet to take position; Yamina No. 2 Shaked comes out against bill

Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar attends the Golan Heights Conference on Economics and Regional Development, on October 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar attends the Golan Heights Conference on Economics and Regional Development, on October 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar defended on Wednesday evening his proposed legislation that would prevent a lawmaker charged with a serious crime from becoming prime minister.

Sa’ar released on Tuesday the text of the bill, which is widely seen as an attempt to block former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who is in the middle of an ongoing corruption trial — from returning to office.

The justice minister denied that the bill was personally linked to Netanyahu, whose Likud party he left last year to form the breakaway New Hope faction. “It’s not a personal law at all,” Sa’ar told Channel 12 news. “I’m not dealing with [Netanyahu] at all.”

The proposed amendment to Israel’s semi-constitutional Basic Laws would block any Knesset member indicted for a crime that includes a minimum sentence of three years and moral turpitude from being tasked by the president with forming a government. Such a MK could also not be included in a vote of confidence in a new government or become alternate prime minister. The proposed law, if approved, would take effect after the next elections when a new Knesset is sworn in.

Sa’ar also denied that he has an “obsession” with Netanyahu, and instead accused the former prime minister of waging “a nonstop campaign against me, and against my wife” — Kan public broadcaster anchor Geula Even-Sa’ar.

Sa’ar told the TV network that his publication of the draft bill this week was coordinated with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who had not publicly weighed in on the controversial legislation.

Opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on October 11, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“In fairness, he has not committed to what will happen in the later stages [of legislation], but publishing the draft legislation… was agreed to by the prime minister,” said Sa’ar.

The bill has caused tensions inside the governing coalition as well as within Bennett’s Yamina party, with Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked coming out publicly in opposition to the bill on Wednesday. “I do not think the attorney general should decide who heads the government,” she said at a political conference on Wednesday morning. Stella Weinstein, Yamina’s director-general, reportedly issued a missive to party members to stop commenting on the issue, following the minister’s remarks.

But Joint List leader Ayman Odeh, whose party sits in the opposition, indicated his support for the legislation. “Shaked only has one finger [in Knesset votes], we have six,” tweeted Odeh on Wednesday. “Gideon Sa’ar, the law can be passed already next week.”

Sa’ar stated on Wednesday evening that six out of eight parties in the coalition support the bill, with Yamina and Ra’am undecided on their position. “I’m not the one who would pass this legislation,” he told Channel 12. “The Knesset is the authoritative body. If there is a majority in the Knesset, then the bill will pass.”

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked (L) and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset on October 11, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Neither the text of the bill nor the accompanying statement from the Justice Ministry on Tuesday named Netanyahu, who would be banned from forming a government if the proposal is passed into law. Netanyahu, now opposition leader, is on trial for fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He denies any wrongdoing.

A public servant convicted of fraud and breach of trust faces a minimum prison sentence of three years, while one convicted of bribery faces 10 years in prison or a fine.

Sa’ar is not expected to begin advancing the bill before the state budget is passed by its deadline of November 14. If the budget is not passed by then, the Knesset will automatically dissolve and new elections will be called. The coalition has been working to quell disagreements ahead of the vote in order to keep the government intact.

Earlier this month, Sa’ar released a legislative memo for a bill that would limit premiers from serving more than eight years in total, though it would not apply retroactively and therefore not prevent Netanyahu from again becoming prime minister.

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