Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday he would drop all his ministerial posts except the one making him premier by the new year as a result of criminal charges against him.
Netanyahu’s statement came in a response to the High Court of Justice after a good-governance group petitioned to have him removed from office.
In addition to being prime minister, Netanyahu also currently holds the agriculture, health, social affairs and Diaspora affairs portfolios. While the law appears to indicate a prime minister can continue to serve while under indictment, all other ministers must resign their posts once charges are filed.
Netanyahu did not say who he would appoint as ministers in his stead.
Netanyahu last month became the first sitting prime minister with charges against him when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced he would be indicting the prime minister for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Mandelblit ruled that Netanyahu does not have to resign as prime minister, as he currently heads a caretaker government so the action would have “no practical relevance.” But he said the premier did have to give up his other posts.
The Movement for a Quality Government lobby group had petitioned the court for Netanyahu to step down.
In a response to Netanyahu’s statement, it said that he should immediately be forced to resign all the positions he holds, including that of prime minister, because of the charges he faces.
“We call on the court to order the prime minister to resign immediately from all of his roles, including as prime minister,” the movement said in a statement. “Netanyahu needs to fight for his innocence as a private citizen and not from the [prime minister’s] bureau. Woe to us if the prime minister drags the entire country with him to the defendant’s bench.”
Netanyahu has dismissed the charges against him and vowed to stay on to fight them. He is also widely believed to be planning on seeking parliamentary immunity if he is able to form a coalition, a feat that has eluded him in two rounds of elections.
Netanyahu’s announcement came hours after the Knesset dissolved itself and set a third round of elections for March 2.
Mandelblit has not yet given a decision as to whether Netanyahu can be tasked with forming a government despite the indictments against him, if he wins the coming vote.
The High Court has given the attorney general until next Thursday to declare whether or not he will give a final ruling on the matter, the Kan public broadcaster reported.
Mandelblit is expected to say that he has not yet decided the matter and it is still under consideration. He had earlier described the question as theoretical and said he would only rule on practical matters, and cited a 2008 High Court ruling that said the question was not a legal question but a political, public one.
Mandelblit must wait for Netanyahu to announce if he will seek immunity from the Knesset before he can formally file charges of fraud and breach of trust in three cases, and bribery in one of them.
Because the Knesset has disbanded, the process could end up being drawn out for months.
On Thursday, Yisrael Beytneu party chief MK Avigdor Liberman said he would not back a bid by Netanyahu to seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution, but would support legislation enabling Netanyahu to resign in return for not being put on trial.
Israel has been caught in a political deadlock that has in part been caused by Netanyahu’s refusal to step down despite the charges against him. The Blue and White party, led by MK Benny Gantz, has said it won’t join a coalition or unity government if Netanyahu remains prime minister.
Netanyahu, who has been premier for the past decade, has held various ministries for himself at times to reserve them as bargaining chips, including, recently, the key foreign and defense portfolios.
The most serious of the criminal cases against him stemmed from his time as communications minister. He is accused of using the role to trade regulatory favors for positive media coverage.
His role as health minister is nominal only, as the ministry is actually run by deputy minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party. Litzman won approval from the spiritual leaders who guide his ultra-Orthodox party to take on the full minister role, normally shunned by his community, if Netanyahu is forced to give it up.