Netanyahu ally says voters, not judges, will decide PM’s legal fate

Netanyahu ally says voters, not judges, will decide PM’s legal fate

Likud MK Miki Zohar signals push for immunity from prosecution if premier forms government after September elections

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with Likud MK Miki Zohar at a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset on February 26, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with Likud MK Miki Zohar at a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset on February 26, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A Likud lawmaker seen as a staunch loyalist of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday said Israeli voters — not the justice system — would decide the premier’s legal fate, signaling a renewed push to protect Netanyahu from prosecution for corruption after the upcoming September 17 elections.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced in mid-February his intention to indict the prime minister, pending a hearing, on fraud and breach of trust charges in three cases, and on a bribery charge in one of them. Netanyahu’s lawyer said Monday evening that the premier would attend the hearing, which was set for October 2 after it was delayed by several months.

“The attorney general and the legal system will have to consider the election results, because the people are the sovereign,” Likud MK Miki Zohar told Kan public radio. “The people determine the social norms.”

“Those who are responsible for Netanyahu’s legal fate are only the Israeli nation and Israeli citizens,” Zohar said. “If they come to the ballot station in a few months and again tell the attorney general, law enforcement systems, the left and the media that they want Netanyahu as their prime minister — with all due respect to everyone, he will remain their prime minister.”

In a complete departure from Netanyahu’s repeated declarations in the run-up to the April 9 Knesset elections — which ended in a deadlock that forced a new national vote — Zohar said he had no doubt that the hearing would result in a decision to indict the premier due to supposed left-wing pressure on Mandelblit.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a farewell ceremony for Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, at the Justice Ministry offices in Jerusalem on June 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu said on many occasions earlier this year that the charges would “collapse in the hearing.” He also denied intending to push for immunity after the election, but later it emerged that immunity had been a core Likud demand in the ultimately failed coalition negotiations.

Netanyahu is widely reported to have tried to build a coalition after April 9’s election in which his Likud MKs and their allies would initiate or back legislative efforts to enable him to avoid prosecution — first by easing his path to gaining immunity via the Knesset, and then by canceling the Supreme Court’s authority to overturn such immunity.

The latter change would be achieved as part of a wide-ranging reform of the Supreme Court’s role, under which justices would be denied their current authority to strike down legislation, and Knesset and government decisions, deemed unconstitutional. Plans for such “override” legislation have been described as marking a potential constitutional revolution that critics warn could shatter the checks and balances at the heart of Israeli democracy.

Netanyahu denies all the allegations against him, and has claimed they stem from a witch hunt supported by the left-wing opposition, the media, the police, and the state prosecution, headed by a “weak” attorney general.

On Monday, the Kan public broadcaster reported that when Netanyahu recently snubbed the Union of Right-Wing Parties’ Betzalel Smotrich for the Justice portfolio, his confidant informed Smotrich that he was passed over because Netanyahu’s legal future would be in the hands of whoever was appointed to the post.

Natan Eshel, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff and a key figure in the failed coalition talks, reportedly told Smotrich: “The next justice minister will hold the key to the legal future of the prime minister and his family. There’s no way you’re getting that key.”

Netanyahu eventually appointed Likud loyalist Amir Ohana, who is among the only senior members of Likud to have publicly backed Netanyahu’s drive to secure immunity from prosecution.

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