Opposition lawmakers reacted with outrage on Wednesday to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision to postpone the pre-indictment hearing for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in three criminal cases by almost three months, arguing that the premier will use the extra time to stifle the courts in order to avoid being charged at all.
The hearing had been scheduled for July 10 — three months after the investigation material was made available to Netanyahu’s lawyers, who took more than a month to collect it — but will now be held on October 2 and 3, Mandelblit announced. If needed, a third day would be added the following week.
Labor MK Stav Shaffir said Mandelblit — a Netanyahu appointee who previously served as his chief of staff — should have recused himself from the case.
Mandelblit is “proving what we thought — he shouldn’t have dealt with the Netanyahu cases. He is afraid and owes his career to Bibi Erdogan,” she said, using Netanyahu’s nickname along with an allusion to the Turkish president, who has passed legislation enabling him to continue serving for decades and has prosecuted and jailed thousands of rivals and dissidents.
Netanyahu’s attorneys had asked the attorney general for a full-year delay, arguing that the scope of the documents was too large to review in a short time. Mandelblit refused that request, saying it was not in the public interest.
“I welcome the attorney general’s decision, rejecting Netanyahu’s attempt to postpone the hearing for an entire year, instead only granting him a proportionate extension,” said Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich. “In any event, it is already clear that the deferral will be used [by Netanyahu] for destructive attempts to assure that the hearing will not take place, and that he will escape justice while destroying the foundations of democracy,” the former opposition chairwoman added.
Meretz head Tamar Zandberg charged that “the prime minister suspected of bribery intends to throw everything he’s got toward abolishing the independence of the courts in order to evade prosecution.”
The Movement for Quality Government announced that it will petition the High Court of Justice against Mandelblit’s delay.
Meretz MK Michal Rozin claimed the delay could end with the eventual cancellation of the hearing altogether, if the government passes legislation granting the premier immunity and, with a so-called “override clause” giving the Knesset both the power to re-legislate laws that have been struck down by the High Court and to prevent the court from nullifying Knesset administrative decisions.
“This is no less than giving a license to demolish the checks and balances in Israeli democracy,” she charged. “The attorney general is granting Netanyahu enough time to legislate both the immunity law and the override clause so that he can achieve conclusively what he really thinks: That he is above the law.”
Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu for fraud and breach of trust in the three cases against him, and for bribery in one of them, in February. The prime minister’s attorneys requested, and were granted, that the case files not be handed over prior to the April 9 national election in order to prevent information from leaking to the media and affecting the vote.
But after the election, Netanyahu’s lawyers refrained for another month from collecting the material, citing a dispute over their fees. They have been accused of engaging in delay tactics.
Netanyahu is believed to be seeking legislation that could shield him from prosecution, though he has encountered significant opposition to such moves, including from members of his own party.
Netanyahu repeatedly insisted in the run-up to the elections that he would not push for legislation granting him automatic immunity. However, several recent media reports have suggested he later decided to move forward with plans to pass such a law.
Sources close to the prime minister said Sunday that in light of the pushback, he had decided not to move forward with a new law and would work with the existing immunity law as amended in 2005.
The existing legislation requires legitimate reasons under which Netanyahu can seek immunity against prosecution while he remains in office, such as asserting that the public interest would be harmed by a trial, or that the will of the electorate would be subverted. Another clause in the law says immunity can be granted if an indictment “has been issued in bad faith or because of discrimination.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is also reportedly working to promote the “override” legislation — a bill that would allow the government to overrule the High Court of Justice on legislative and administrative matters and that could safeguard the prime minister’s immunity from prosecution by permitting the annulment of any judicial decision to rescind it.
Case 1000 involves accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for favors; Case 2000 involves accusations that Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth; and Case 4000, widely seen as the most serious against the premier, involves accusations that Netanyahu advanced regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, in exchange for positive coverage from its Walla news site.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing, and claims the move toward indicting him is a political witch-hunt by the opposition, the media, the police and the state prosecution to force him from office.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.