Mandelblit: Netanyahu’s claims of impropriety came only after charges announced

Mandelblit: Netanyahu’s claims of impropriety came only after charges announced

AG hits back at PM’s accusation of ‘trumped-up charges,’ conspiracy against him, says allegations will be clarified in court

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a farewell ceremony held for outgoing State Prosector Shai Nitzan at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem on December 18, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a farewell ceremony held for outgoing State Prosector Shai Nitzan at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem on December 18, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit hit back at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent claims of “trumped-up charges” being brought against him, saying that the allegations are baseless and will be clarified in court.

“It is legitimate for the attorney general to be criticized, but the claims of ‘trumped-up charges’ were heard only after we made a decision to prosecute Netanyahu,” Mandelblit told a Justice Ministry conference in the coastal city of Haifa.

“I find no basis for allegations of bad faith, but the claims will be clarified,” he said in reference to comments made by Netanyahu last week when he announced that he would seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution in the trio of corruption cases.

Days after giving a speech in which he defended immunity as a “cornerstone of democracy,” the prime minister repeated his claims on Thursday that he was the victim of persecution by authorities, and asserted that “immunity is intended to protect elected representatives from trumped-up charges. It was intended to ensure that those elected by the people can serve the people, according to the will of the people.”

Insinuating a conspiracy against him, Netanyahu accused authorities of engaging in “trumped-up charges, selective enforcement, blackmail of state’s witnesses” and more. He claimed exonerating information was “being held in the shadows under gag orders and attorney general decisions.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces his intention to file a request to the Knesset for immunity from prosecution, in Jerusalem on January 1, 2020. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Mandelblit vehemently rejected the claims.

“The allegations of trumped-up charges or attempted regime change are baseless and it’s unfortunate that I even have to say so,” he said Sunday. “There were no allegations of trumped-up charges and it’s regrettable that this is being brought up now. Everything will be clarified, at the right time, maybe soon… In the end, the claims will be clarified in the appropriate way outlined by the law.”

Mandelblit in November announced his intention to indict the prime minister. Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in all three cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He denies wrongdoing and has accused police and state prosecutors of an “attempted coup” against him.

The premier’s announcement that he would seek immunity came after months in which he remained evasive when questioned about his intentions on the matter. In once case he told Channel 12 during an interview “no way,” when asked if he would make any move to thwart his indictment.

Under a 2005 change to the Knesset immunity law, members of the legislature no longer receive automatic immunity from prosecution but must request it from the plenum when relevant. Netanyahu is partly basing his petition on clauses in the immunity law that allow an MK to ask for protection from prosecution under the claim that an indictment has been filed in “bad faith” or while discriminating against the defendant, and/or that prosecution would counter the will of the electorate.

Despite Netanyahu’s assertion that any immunity would be temporary, his actual request sent to Edelstein indicated otherwise: The prime minister’s lawyers wrote he was asking for functional immunity in one of the three cases against him as well as in certain aspects of another. Functional immunity protects parliamentarians from prosecution for things they did in fulfilling their parliamentary work, and is permanent, rather than temporary. Procedural immunity is temporary, and has to do with offenses committed by a parliamentarian that are unrelated to his parliamentary work.

Netanyahu’s attorneys, in their request to the Knesset speaker, asserted that his actions in Case 2000 — in which he is suspected of an illicit quid pro quo deal with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would weaken a rival daily — fell under the purview of functional immunity as “all that is attributed to him in this charge was done by the prime minister as part of his work as a Knesset member.”

Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and activists protest against the Israeli legal system outside a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on whether a lawmaker facing criminal indictment can be tapped to form a coalition, December 31, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

They also said his alleged attempts to extend tax exemptions for returning expats to aid billionaire Arnon Milchan, under Case 1000, deserved functional immunity “as here too the indictment attributes actions to the prime minister carried out as part of his work as a Knesset member, in the framework of reviewing potential legislation.”

According to the Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, Netanyahu’s request [Hebrew] must be weighed by the House Committee before it can be voted upon by the whole plenum. Due to the lack of a functioning legislature amid a year-long ongoing political deadlock, and with new elections set for March 2, there is currently no functioning House Committee to consider the request.

But in a legal opinion released Sunday, Yinon said there was no legal impediment to lawmakers setting up a House Committee to decide on immunity for Netanyahu, assuming there was majority support for such a move.

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