'Out of the question. I don't know. I don't believe I will'

PM says he is not seeking immunity law, but leaves door open for one

Netanyahu insists it is ‘out of the question’ that would encourage legislation to protect him from prosecution, but backtracks slightly when asked to promise that he won’t

Prime Minister Benjamin in Jerusalem, on March 20, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin in Jerusalem, on March 20, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated he would not seek legislation that could give him immunity from looming graft charges, and then appeared to backtrack, in a rare interview Saturday.

Speaking to Channel 12 news, Netanyahu repeatedly dismissed the notion that he was seeking a law that would prevent a sitting prime minister from being indicted, which would seemingly allow him to escape charges in three graft cases he is facing.

“I haven’t got involved with this, and I don’t intend to get involved with this,” he told interviewer Keren Marciano. He said such a move was “out of the question.”

However, when asked if he would pledge to not pursue or support such legislation, he said “I don’t know” before indicating he didn’t think he would do so.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is interviewed by Israeli’s Channel 12 news at the network’s studio on March 23, 2019. (Screen capture: Channel 12)

“I haven’t got involved with this… This is the first time I’ve been asked about this. You’re asking me… I’m telling you, I haven’t got involved with this… and I don’t believe I will get involved with this,” he said.

Netanyahu’s comments came during a 35-minute interview with Channel 12 news, his first with a major Israeli television outlet in at least four years.

Last month, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing, on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three cases. The prime minister denies all the allegations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) is interviewed on Channel 12 by Amit Segal and Keren Marciano (Channel 12 screenshot)

Critics and others have expressed fears that that Netanyahu or his allies will pursue a form of legislation that would grant him immunity from charges should he manage to form a coalition after April 9 elections.

Speculation has swirled that Netanyahu may be planning to condition entry to the post-election coalition he hopes to form on support for a so-called “French law,” which would shelter him from prosecution as long as he remains in office. At a Times of Israel event this month, Blue and White party co-leader Yair Lapid predicted that if Netanyahu is reelected, he will immediately pass three pieces of legislation to give himself immunity from prosecution.

In 2017, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, now of the New Right party, offered cautious support for a version of a law modeled on one in France offering a sitting head of government freedom from prosecution, after it was pushed forward by Likud MK David Bitan, himself under investigation. However in March, New Right leader Naftali Bennett said his party would not support an immunity bill that can be applied retroactively.

MK Bezalel Smotrich, number two in the new Union of Right Wing Parties and chair of the hard-line National Union faction within it, filed a bill earlier this month that would give lawmakers increased powers to block charges against sitting Knesset members, including the prime minister.

Netanyahu told Channel 12 Saturday night that he had told lawmakers to stop when they tried to advance legislation to protect him.

What would prevent his prosecution, he said, “are the facts [of the cases] themselves.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks during a farewell ceremony for outgoing Israel Police chief Roni Alsheikh, on November 29, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While a sitting Israeli prime minister has never been this close to indictment before, Netanyahu is not obligated to resign at this stage. The planned indictment is still subject to a hearing, during which Netanyahu can plead his case before formal charges are filed.

“Everything will be disqualified in the hearing. I still haven’t said a word in my defense, a single word … It’s all poppycock,” he said.

Netanyahu may not need new legislation to protect himself. According to an existing law, Knesset members can be granted immunity if a majority of lawmakers are convinced the defendant has been treated unfairly and the charges are based on discrimination or a bad-faith effort.

“The Knesset can give him immunity if it is persuaded that he is the victim of a vendetta — as he believes is the case,” jurist Mordechai Kremnitzer told The Times of Israel late last year.

The prime minister has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and claims the investigations are part of efforts by the media and Israeli left to remove him from power, with the support of a dishonest police investigating team, overseen by a “weak” attorney general.

In Case 1000, involving accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for favors, Mandelblit said he intends to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust.

In Case 2000, involving accusations Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth, Mandelblit will seek to also charge the premier with fraud and breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery.

In Case 4000, widely seen as the most serious against the premier, Netanyahu is accused of having 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. In that case, Mandelblit announced he intends to charge both Netanyahu and Elovitch with bribery.

New suspicions have also arisen regarding a possible conflict of interest related to unreported business dealings possibly tied to a German shipbuilder from which Israel buys submarines. The purchases have been investigated in the so-called Case 3000, and several of Netanyahu’s associates have been allegedly incriminated, but the prime minister is not a suspect.

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