PM frets about security, makes no mention of legal woes at cabinet meeting

After indictment announcement, Netanyahu focuses on Iran protests; Likud ministers ignore questions about party primaries

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on November 24, 2019. (Sebastian Scheiner/Pool/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on November 24, 2019. (Sebastian Scheiner/Pool/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday headed his first cabinet meeting since the announcement he would be indicted for corruption, making no mention of his legal or political woes amid Israel’s months-long political standstill.

Netanyahu’s remarks at the start of the meeting focused on gunfire at a police car in northern Israel over the weekend, drones from the Gaza Strip, and the security threat posed by Iran, which he has warned repeatedly in recent months necessitates the swift formation of a new government.

“Iran is not only attacking its neighbors and us, Iran is attacking its own citizens,” Netanyahu said.

The prime minister was referring to major protests that broke out in Iran this month after a gasoline price hike. Iranian authorities shut off internet access in response to the violent protests, in which Amnesty International said over 100 people were killed.

“In recent weeks they’ve slaughtered hundreds of Iranian citizens,” Netanyahu said. “This is a tyrannical regime par excellence whose character and true appearance are now being exposed to the whole world.”

He called on countries that want “peace and stability in our region and the world in general” to pressure Iran and back Israeli efforts to stop Iranian “aggression.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud lawmakers at a rally in Tel Aviv on November 17, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

As they arrived for the meeting, ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud party did not comment on the charges against him and largely ignored reporters’ questions about MK Gideon Sa’ar’s bid to challenge the premier in a party leadership primary.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s announcement last week he would indict Netanyahu in three criminal cases and Sa’ar’s call for a Likud leadership race came as Israel appeared headed to a third round of elections in less than a year.

The responsibility for tasking a lawmaker to form a government is now in the hands of the Knesset, after both Netanyahu and his centrist rival Benny Gantz failed to assemble a coalition following elections in September.

If no MK can gather the support of a majority of lawmakers during the current 21-day period, the Knesset will be dissolved and new elections called.

Netanyahu was also unable to put together a government after elections in April but pushed through a vote for a snap poll rather than have another MK get a crack at building a coalition, precipitating the September vote, which was also inconclusive.

Potentially further adding to Netanyahu’s troubles, Hebrew media reports said Sunday Mandelblit was expected to issue a legal opinion by the end of the week on whether there is any impediment barring the prime minister from forming a government in the future due to charges against him.

A committee formed by Mandelblit will also evaluate whether Netanyahu must resign once the charges are officially lodged in court or may remain in office unless convicted and all appeals exhausted. It will also rule on whether the prime minister must relinquish the ministerial portfolios he currently holds, namely agriculture, health, social affairs and Diaspora affairs.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit holds a press conference at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem announcing his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, November 21, 2019. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)

According to legal precedent, a minister cannot continue to serve under indictment. The rule does not explicitly apply to the prime minister, and Netanyahu has vowed to maintain his position as premier while he fights the charges. Many of the legal issues relating to Netanyahu are unprecedented in Israeli history and are not openly laid out in law.

Despite having an indictment hanging over him, Netanyahu has vowed to remain prime minister while he fights the charges.

On Thursday, Netanyahu, in an emotional and defiant address, accused prosecutors and justice officials of a “tainted process,” and vowed to “continue to lead Israel… in accordance with the law,” shortly after Mandelblit announced he would charge the premier with criminal wrongdoing in three separate cases against him, including bribery in the far-reaching Bezeq corruption probe.

Mandelblit’s decision marked the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister faces criminal charges, casting a heavy shadow over Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, and his ongoing attempts to remain in power.

The announcement did not include the official filing of an indictment, as the Knesset must first decide on whether to grant Netanyahu procedural immunity, a process that — due to the current political gridlock and the lack of a functioning government — could drag on for months.

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