Netanyahu charges re-delivered to Knesset, starting clock on immunity request

Prime minister now has until January 1 to ask for immunity; Mandelblit designates Jerusalem District Court as trial bench, releases list of 333 prosecution witnesses

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Israel, December 1, 2019. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Israel, December 1, 2019. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit released a new version of the indictment against Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, designating the Jerusalem District Court as the bench that may hold the first ever trial of a sitting Israeli prime minister and naming 333 witnesses that the state may call.

Presenting the charge sheet (Hebrew) to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Mandelblit clarified that the 30-day period for Netanyahu to request to be granted parliamentary immunity by the Knesset has now officially begun. Because of Israel’s political deadlock, however, the immunity issue may not be discussed by the Knesset for months, delaying the formal filing of the charges against Netanyahu at the Jerusalem court.

Mandelblit first announced charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust against Netanyahu on November 21, but the original charge sheet did not specify the courthouse or the witness list.

“Due to inquiries received by the Attorney General’s Office, including from the prime minister’s defense attorneys, and in the name of good order, Attorney General Mandelblit decided to present the Speaker of the Knesset with an indictment that includes the list of prosecution witnesses… and that his place of its filing is in the Jerusalem District Court,” the Justice Ministry said in a statement.

The rest of the indictment is identical to the original charge sheet.

According to the full indictment, Netanyahu will be charged with fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, in which he is suspected of receiving gifts from wealthy benefactors and attempting to arrange a quid pro quo with a newspaper publisher. He is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000, which concerns suspicions he gave out regulatory favors in exchange for positive media coverage.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit addresses the press after announcing his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, at the justice ministry in Jerusalem on November 21, 2019 (TV screenshot)

In his letter to the Speaker of the Knesset, the attorney general wrote that “he believes that the original indictment he put before him complies with the provisions of the Knesset Immunity Law, even thought he did not include the list of prosecution witnesses and the district court to which he intends to file the indictment,” the statement said, but added that in order to prevent confusion, the period given for Netanyahu to request immunity would only begin from Monday.

Netanyahu therefore has until January 1, 2020, to ask the Knesset to provide him immunity in the three cases against him.

Officials had earlier believed that the November 21 announcement started the clock on the 30 days for Netanyahu to ask for immunity, but Mandelblit said he would restart the timer to give Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt.

Netanyahu has not yet announced if he wants immunity, but is widely assumed to be seeking it.

However, with the Knesset set to dissolve itself in 10 days unless a solution to the current political impasse is found, it could take months before Mandelblit is able to officially indict the premier.

Without majority support in both the currently non-functioning Knesset House Committee and the 120-seat Knesset plenum, Netanyahu cannot be granted immunity from prosecution.

If he asks for immunity, charges can likely only be filed in court after the committee rejects the bid, meaning the process could drag on for several months until after a coalition is formed and a House Committee is staffed.

According to the indictment, the prime minister “damaged the image of the public service and public trust in it.” He is suspected of abusing his position and status, and of knowingly “taking a bribe as a public servant in exchange for actions related to your position.”

After the charges were initially announced, Netanyahu said he was the victim of an attempted coup. He said he would not resign but would, rather, continue to lead Israel “in accordance with the law.” He has denied any wrongdoing.

Among the 333 witnesses in the indictment are several US-based tycoons, including Israel Hayom publishers Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, Ronald Lauder and Arnon Milchan. Many of Netanyahu’s former top aides and a number of journalists are on the list as well.

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