Minister compares judges to 'Islamic fanatics in Iran'

Netanyahu tells Supreme Court AG should not be able to disqualify him

PM rejects justices’ authority to rule on whether an MK facing indictment can form coalition; court to discuss issue on Tuesday

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends an event marking the eighth night of Hanukkah, on December 29, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends an event marking the eighth night of Hanukkah, on December 29, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the High Court of Justice on Sunday that it was “inconceivable” for Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to decide who will be the next prime minister.

In a letter to the top legal body ahead of a Tuesday hearing on whether a lawmaker facing criminal indictment can be tapped to form a coalition, Netanyahu lamented that the charges Mandelblit announced against him in three corruption cases were preventing the people from deciding who will lead them.

“It is inconceivable that one public official, the attorney general, as important as he is, will determine instead of the general public along with its representatives in the Knesset who can run the state and who cannot,” Netanyahu wrote. “In a democracy, those who decide who will lead are the people — the people, and no else.”

The prime minister was responding to a petition submitted by attorney Dafna Holtz-Lachner in the name of a group of 67 well-known public figures, academics and tech executives, who argued that even if Netanyahu could not be asked to resign, the court should rule on his eligibility to run again.

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)

The premier argued that the law allows for a prime minister to continue serving until he has been convicted of a crime and that the court’s interference to prevent him from doing so would be a significant overstep.

The petition argues that the current law’s leniency toward an indicted prime minister only refers to a serving premier, not an MK seeking a new appointment to the post (Netanyahu, as interim premier, is in that position). It asks the question: Based on the standard according to which a regular cabinet minister must resign when under indictment, can an MK in a similarly compromised legal position be appointed prime minister in the first place?

Dismissing the petition, Netanyahu wrote that it was “an attempt to drag the court to an issue that is… not at all within the purview of the honorable court… For this reason alone, the petition should be rejected out of hand.”

Joining other Likud lawmakers who have come out in support of Netanyahu, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin likened the High Court of Justice to Iranian religious fundamentalists in an interview on Sunday.

“What is supposed to be democratic elections has become a council like the Islamic fanatics in Iran,” Levin told Army Radio. “The very fact this High Court deliberation is being held is absolutely outrageous, no matter its outcome.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset on February 13, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Tuesday’s hearing on the petition will take place before a three-judge panel led by Chief Justice Esther Hayut and including Deputy Chief Justice Hanan Melcer and Justice Uzi Vogelman.

The High Court had asked Mandelblit to provide a legal opinion of his own on the matter, but he responded saying that he wanted to wait until after the court ruled.

The appeal against Netanyahu’s eligibility for reelection comes as the prime minister has been accusing prosecutors, the media and the judiciary of working together to bring him down with trumped-up corruption charges. Mandelblit has announced an indictment against Netanyahu in three corruption cases, which include charges of breach of trust, fraud and, in the most serious case, bribery.

Netanyahu’s legal woes are partially responsible for an unprecedented year-long political deadlock that will see a third election in 11 months held on March 2, 2020. The election was called after Netanyahu twice failed to form a government, following the April 9 and September 17 elections. Challenger Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party also failed in his attempt to cobble together a ruling coalition last month.

The centrist Blue and White has refused to join a coalition either with Netanyahu as a prime minister under indictment or one that would require it to support parliamentary immunity for the longtime premier.

Israeli law stipulates that a prime minister is only required to resign after he or she is convicted of a serious crime and all appeals have been exhausted. But judicial precedent from the early 1990s and longstanding practice have set a stricter standard for other ministers, who have been forced to resign from their cabinet posts, at least temporarily, once indictments have been announced in their cases.

‎Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut (C) and other judges on the court, ahead of a hearing on March 14, 2019. (Hadas Parush/ Flash90)

Separately on Sunday, Netanyahu told supporters that seeking immunity from prosecution is not anti-democratic, but rather a “cornerstone of democracy.” The premier added that within two days, he would announce his decision as to whether or not he will seek parliamentary immunity from the corruption charges against him.

Netanyahu must announce whether he wants to seek immunity in the coming days, or automatically forfeit his right to do so. Though the premier is far from guaranteed to get a Knesset majority to support an immunity bid, merely asking for it will delay any potential trial by months.

His request must by weighed by the House Committee before it can be voted upon by the plenum, but due to the lack of a functioning legislature amid the ongoing political deadlock, and new elections set for March, the Knesset will only be able to review and decide on his request after a coalition is formed — if it is formed — following the elections.

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