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PM immunity bill will provide a ‘refuge’ for criminals, AG warns

Avichai Mandelblit says controversial proposal to indemnify premiers would be a ‘massive blow to the rule of law’

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at the Justice Conference of the Israeli Bar Association, in Tel Aviv, August 29, 2017. (Roy Alima/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at the Justice Conference of the Israeli Bar Association, in Tel Aviv, August 29, 2017. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Tuesday stepped up his public onslaught against a controversial initiative to grant serving prime ministers immunity from criminal prosecution, saying that if passed into legislation it would be a blow to the rule of law and public trust.

Speaking at a seminar held by the conservative Kohelet Policy Forum think tank in Jerusalem, Mandelblit said the bill was “unacceptable” and would turn the premiership into a “refuge” for criminals.

His comments came a day after he slammed the so-called immunity bill as “absurd,” “wrong” and “inappropriate.”

Amid two ongoing criminal investigations into corruption allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud lawmakers have been pushing for a law that would prohibit police from probing a serving premier for fraud, bribery or breach of trust.

At the seminar, Mandelblit detailed why the proposed law could be problematic.

“According to the bill, theoretically, even if there is unequivocal evidence that the serving prime minister paid — before his election — a bribe to another person, or received a bribe from someone else in his role as prime minister, an investigation will not be opened during his term in office,” he said.

“The role of prime minister, the most important role in the country, would become a ‘refuge city’ for that criminal,” he said, making a reference to the biblical cities of refuge where those who committed involuntary manslaughter could find asylum. “This would be a massive blow to the rule of law, the principle of equality before the law, and public trust.”

Mandelblit explained that, currently, there is a delicate balance between the various interests to be considered in investigating elected officials, including the prime minister.

The bill, he said, “is devoid of any balance.

“One possible outcome is that a serving prime minister will become enveloped in a spreading, amorphous cloud of suspicions. Worse, it is possible that the partners in crime of that theoretical prime minister will be investigated and even convicted, in a manner that clearly implicates him in the offense, while he continues to serve in the role for a significant period of several years. By the times those years are up at the completion of his term, when police are permitted to investigate the suspect, will there still be evidence to gather that has not yet been contaminated or disappeared?” Mandelblit continued.

“In a democratic country the rule of law is the same for every person — from the simple citizen up to the prime minister. That is how it was, and it is appropriate that it should continue to be so.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Kneeset in Jerusalem, October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In its current form, the bill would likely not help Netanyahu evade the current suspicions against him, as it would not apply to existing investigations, but it would prevent him being made a suspect in further criminal cases.

Some Knesset members have also raised fears that the bill may later be amended to apply retroactively to save Netanyahu from prosecution.

On Sunday, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) postponed a vote on the bill, floated by Likud MK David Amsalem, in the powerful Ministerial Committee for Legislation. In response, coalition chair MK David Bitan, a staunch Netanyahu ally, reportedly threatened to freeze all government legislation until the bill is passed by committee.

In an attempt to quash claims that the bill would put the prime minister above the law, Amsalem added a clause to the bill late last week that would place term limits on the prime minister.

According to the language in that amendment, a prime minister who has served eight consecutive years in office would not be allowed to form a new government. The clause, however, would allow prime ministers to form a new government — which could potentially last nearly five years — in their eighth year in office, and makes no mention of preventing consecutive terms. And like the limits on police investigations, the term limits would not apply to the current prime minister.

Earlier this month, it was reported that police were deepening their investigations into the actions of the prime minister and that he will be summoned soon for questioning in the two investigations against him, cases 1000 and 2000.

Likud MK David Amsalem, chairman of the Interior Affairs Committee leads the Interior Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset , in Jerusalem, on July 11, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Case 1000 relates to allegations that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, received illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, most notably hundreds of thousands of shekels’ worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes that would have seen the prime minister hobble a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

The prime minister denies any wrongdoing in either case.

Investigators are also expected to set a date for Netanyahu to provide testimony as a witness in Case 3000, which involves suspected corruption by several associates of the prime minister in the sale of German submarines to Israel, the report said. Though Netanyahu is not a suspect in the submarines case, his critics have accused him of pushing the prime minister immunity bill in order to ensure that he won’t be made one in the future.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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