Report: PM’s allies weighing move to presidential system to shield him legally

Report: PM’s allies weighing move to presidential system to shield him legally

Channel 13 says officials considering change to system of government, though report provides no details on how such action would aid Netanyahu avoid criminal charges

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacts after addressing supporters at his Likud party election headquarters in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on election night early on April 10, 2019. (Thomas Coex/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacts after addressing supporters at his Likud party election headquarters in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on election night early on April 10, 2019. (Thomas Coex/AFP)

Allies of Benjamin Netanyahu are considering launching a bid to move Israel to a presidential system in order to protect the prime minister from prosecution in three criminal probes, Channel 13 news reported Friday.

The TV channel claimed such a fundamental change to Israel’s system of government could ease legislation to stop legal action against Netanyahu. The network did not provide further information, detail who the government officials floating the possibility were, or explain how a change in the system of government could help the prime minister.

Netanyahu is a suspect in three criminal probes, known as cases 1000, 2000 and 4000, in which investigators have recommended graft indictments.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced in February that he intended to indict Netanyahu in all three cases, pending a hearing.

Speculation has swirled that Netanyahu may use his newfound political strength after Tuesday’s election to advance legislation that would grant him immunity from prosecution as long as he remains prime minister. He has been reported to be considering conditioning entry to his new government on potential support for the so-called French Law, sheltering a sitting prime minister from prosecution. Netanyahu has publicly given mixed signals about whether he will seek such legislation.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks during a conference at the national library in Jerusalem on June 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On Wednesday Likud MK Miki Zohar said that the ruling party’s dramatic election victory meant that prosecutors should reconsider pursuing criminal charges against Netanyahu. He argued that indicting a victorious Netanyahu would amount to subverting the public will.

Zohar insisted that the standards by which Netanyahu was being judged in the investigations into cases 1000, 2000 and 4000 were set especially high. The people, he added, “are the sovereign.”

According to an existing law, Knesset members already have the power to grant immunity to one of their number if a majority of lawmakers are convinced the defendant has been treated unfairly and the charges are discriminatory or were filed in bad faith.

“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.

Netanyahu would have to win a simple majority first in the Knesset’s House Committee, where Likud could easily ensure it, and then in the Knesset itself. Such action would very likely lead to petitions to the Supreme Court, linking the premier’s legal fate to the greater battle between the political and the judicial echelons.

MK Bezalel Smotrich, number two in the new Union of Right-Wing Parties, proposed a bill in early March that would alter parliamentary immunity laws to automatically grant immunity to lawmakers unless the Knesset strips them of it. This would constitute a reversion to a system that was overhauled 12 years ago amid criticism that it protected corrupt and criminal MKs from prosecution.

National Union MK Bezalel Smotrich at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While a sitting prime minister has never been this close to indictment before, Netanyahu is not obligated by law to resign until he is convicted, and even then there would likely be a legal battle over whether he could stay on during an appeals process. During his hearing, Netanyahu can plead his case before formal charges are filed.

Mandelblit has said the hearing will be held within three months of election day. However, Channel 12 news reported Saturday that prosecutors are likely to allow a further extension, and the process may be delayed as far back as September.

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 Elovitch’s 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 as the so-called Case 3000, which snared several of Netanyahu’s close associates but in which Netanyahu is not currently a suspect.

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