Opposition leaders on Monday evening lambasted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement that he did not plan to resign if the attorney general announces he intends to indict him on corruption charges before the next election, as well as the premier’s claim that his ouster under such circumstances would hurt democracy.
Netanyahu made the combative comments during a rare press conference, speaking to Israeli journalists in Rio de Janiero, where he is on a state visit.
“Netanyahu, suspected of bribery, continues his usual fear-mongering against the institutions that will determine his legal fate,” the Zionist Union party said in a statement shortly after Netanyahu spoke.
Asked how he would proceed if summoned by the attorney general for a hearing, which is a final step before charges are filed, Netanyahu said: “If that happens, I won’t resign.”
He said he was not required to do so under the law, and that he remains convinced that the three corruption cases against him will yield “nothing.”
“Imagine what happens if you oust a prime minister before the end of the hearing process, and at the end of the hearing it is decided to close the case,” he said. “That would be absurd, and a terrible blow to democracy.”
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said Netanyahu’s comments exhibited “moral bankruptcy, and are proof that he is out of control.
“The only thing he’s concerned with is to save himself from his criminal cases, not the good of the country,” Lapid tweeted.
MK Shelly Yachimovich (Zionist Union) said “Netanyahu’s insolent statements show defiance to the authority of all institutions of the rule of law, and endanger democracy.”
MK Issawi Frej of Meretz pointed a finger at politicians who have stood by Netanyahu despite the legal proceedings.
“We no longer have expectations of Netanyahu, but I’d be happy to hear from his potential coalition partners… a clear statement that they will not serve in a government whose head has been indicted,” he said.
Netanyahu’s public comments on Monday followed reported remarks last week in which he was said to have told his inner circle that he believed Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit “won’t dare” to announce charges against him before the national ballot.
Even if he is indicted, Netanyahu — who has been implicated in three criminal cases — will not cave to public pressure to step down as premier and fight the charges as a private citizen, the report in the Israel Hayom daily said Thursday. Instead, if elected, he will remain in the top job throughout his public trial, the paper, considered pro-Netanyahu, quoted him as saying.
The law does not clearly state that a prime minister who has been indicted must resign. Rather, it says he must step down only after he has been convicted of an offense that carries moral turpitude, like bribery or breach of trust, and the appeal process has been exhausted.
The Knesset can ask the prime minister to step down before that process is complete, but if it does not, he can, in theory, remain in office.
Last week’s announcement that elections will be held in April — seven months earlier than planned — came as Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit began reviewing the criminal cases against Netanyahu, marking the most high-stakes stage yet of a several-year legal entanglement that could upend the country’s political system. Reports before the announcement of early elections suggested he intended to make a decision on whether to indict the prime minister by mid-April, but judicial authorities have indicated he could finish months earlier and announce his intention to indict pending a hearing by February.
After the election, the Likud sources also told Israel Hayom on Thursday, Netanyahu would condition entry into his coalition on parties promising to remain in the government even if he is indicted at a later date. The ultra-Orthodox, Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu parties are reportedly seen by Likud as certain to make such a promise, while new parties headed by Benny Gantz and Orli Levy-Abekasis, Kulanu, Yesh Atid, and even the Zionist Union would all be “possible options for coalition partners,” if they make similar declarations.
Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon and Lapid have both said publicly on a number of occasions that Netanyahu cannot continue to lead the country if he is charged.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.