Amid indications that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will seek to advance legislation to render himself immune from prosecution in three criminal cases in which he is facing indictment, lawmakers from likely opposition parties used their allotted time to address the Knesset plenary on Monday to read from the full interim charge sheet against Netanyahu.
The 55-page document, signed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who has overseen the criminal investigation of the prime minister, was sent to Netanyahu on February 28, and also made publicly available (Hebrew). It specifies that the attorney general intends to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust in all three cases, and with bribery in one of them.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing. He has alleged that the investigation, the subsequent police recommendation to charge him, and Mandelblit’s subsequent decision to press charges pending a final hearing constitute a witch hunt involving the political opposition, the media, the police and the state prosecution.
A first full English translation of the document was published by The Times of Israel last week.
One by one, members of both the centrist Blue and White party and the left-wing Meretz party utilized their “one-minute speeches,” in which MKs are allowed to address any issue they like, to read the draft indictment in its entirety, each continuing from where their colleagues left off.
After some dozen addresses, including from Meretz chair Tamar Zandberg, the MKs were on page 20. A spokesperson for Blue and White said they would continue at the next time allotted for one-minute speeches, when others would get their turns to address the plenum.
The move mimicked a similar effort by US Democrats in Congress last week, who read the entirety of the redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election from the House floor, and comes as both US President Donald Trump and Netanyahu have signaled that they would block any efforts to indict them.
Prior to the April 9 elections, Netanyahu gave mixed signals when asked whether he would seek to evade prosecution by means of Knesset legislation to guarantee himself immunity and to prevent the Supreme Court from overturning that immunity. On one occasion, in a late March television interview, he dismissed the idea but then backtracked within seconds. On May 15, a Channel 12 television report said Netanyahu had conclusively decided to legislate in order to avoid prosecution for as long as he remains in office. It said Netanyahu and members of his close circle had begun briefing Likud MKs “on how to market this to the public.”
Opposition politicians and some legal analysts have argued that the passage of retroactive legislation designed to render a prime minister and other Knesset members immune from prosecution for alleged offenses committed while in office, and of legislation that would prevent the Supreme Court from overturning such a decision, would constitute a major breach of Israeli democracy.
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.
Speaking after the Blue and White and Meretz MKs in his maiden Knesset speech, Labor leader Avi Gabbay said that Netanyahu’s efforts to protect himself from prosecution represented “a dark hour for democracy,” vowing to fight against them from the opposition.
“Now, when immunity is the only issue on the prime minister’s agenda, we must be a clear opposition, to resist and to fight with all our might against the real blow to our democracy,” Gabbay said.
“This is indeed a dark hour for our democracy, which was built here for 71 years,” he added.