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'If a leader commits a crime he cannot continue to serve'

State prosecutor blasts bid to pass PM immunity bill

In Bible commentary piece, Shai Nitzan writes that efforts to protect the premier will erode public trust in leaders

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

State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan speaking at a Ministry of Justice conference in Tel Aviv, December 21, 2016.(Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan speaking at a Ministry of Justice conference in Tel Aviv, December 21, 2016.(Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In a rare public criticism of legislative efforts, published in the form of Bible commentary, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan came out Monday against a bill that would give serving prime ministers immunity from criminal prosecution, arguing that probing the actions of public officials is an “essential tenet” of democracy.

Amid two ongoing criminal investigations into corruption allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud lawmakers are pushing for legislation that would prohibit police from probing a serving premier for fraud, bribery or breach of trust. In its current form, the bill would likely not help Netanyahu in those instances as it specifies it would not apply to ongoing investigations, but would prevent him being made a suspect in further criminal cases. Some MKs 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, proposed 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.

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)

Writing as part of the “929 Project” (Hebrew), which daily publishes an exposition on a Bible chapter penned by leading religious and public figures, Nitzan, without directly mentioning the bill, said that efforts to limit investigations of political leaders will end in the “erosion of public trust,” both in those leaders and in the rule of law.

Expounding on Proverbs 25:2, which reads, “The honor of God is to conceal things, whereas the honor of kings is to investigate them,” Nitzan offered a creative reading, arguing that investigating suspected wrongdoing by public leaders will preserve their “honor” rather than destroy it.

“There is a determined opinion that due to the ‘honor’ of kings and other leaders (ministers, Knesset members, rabbis and the like) we should not investigate suspicions against them so that public trust in them is not damaged,” he wrote, citing arguments made in 2006 in opposition to investigating rape allegations against then-president Moshe Katzav, who was eventually convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Shai Nitzan, center, speaking to the press in 2008. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

According to Nitzan, had those allegations not been investigated, “the remainder of his term would have been served under a dark cloud.” Instead of preventing investigations from damaging an innocent-until-proven-guilty leader — which is what Netanyahu supporters have argued that Amsalem’s bill would ensure — Nitzan said rumors would only grow and “the ambiguous situation would undoubtedly damage his status and the public’s trust in him.”

Giving a prime minister criminal immunity would “severely damage” the principle of equality before the law, “which is an essential tenet of our system,” Nitzan added.

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.

Speaking on Army Radio Monday morning, Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein admitted he had reservations about the bill but said that with appropriate limitations he would support it.

“If the bill gives some kind of absolute immunity to whoever is serving as prime minister, without time limitations and from every crime, then certainly there is no place for it. If it is a personal law against somebody or other then certainly there is no room for it,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a tour of the Jerusalem Police headquarters at the Russian compound in Jerusalem, October 7, 2015. (GPO)

But Nitzan, who made no mention of term limits in his article, said the most effective way to ensure prime ministers are treated fairly is to investigate allegations against them, rather than ignore or push them off. “An effective investigation of suspicions can come to disprove them… and, if we find that a leader has committed a crime, he certainly cannot continue to lead the public,” he write.

The biblical passage, therefore, “reveals an appropriate and necessary principle of governance, certainly in our generation, when there should be transparency regarding the actions of the state, and especially in the case of criminal suspicions against [political] leaders,” he added.

Responding to the criticism, Amsalem slammed Nitzan as “little more than a government bureaucrat,” saying he had overstepped his bounds by commenting on legislation in progress.

“Just as I don’t tell Shai Nitzan my opinion of the investigation that he is running, he shouldn’t tell me his opinion of the laws I am legislating. That’s not his job. This is not the way things should be done,” Amsalem said in a statement.

Some 30 minutes before the statement was released, however, and apparently before he was aware of Nitzan’s criticism, Amsalem spoke about the investigation and offered his opinion on the probe and how it was being run.

“This investigation could remove the prime minister for no reason whatsoever,” he told Israel Radio.

Arnon Milchan (L) and Benjamin Netanyahu attend a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 28, 2005. (Flash90)

“What has Netanyahu done? Getting gifts from a friend of his he has known for many years? Between friends of so many years, it’s allowed,” he said, referring to Case 1000, which is investigating 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.

Netanyahu is also a criminal suspect in Case 2000 involving a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes. The deal, which was apparently not implemented, would have seen the prime minister hobble a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.

In  addition, Netanyahu has been linked to several suspects in Case 3000, which involves suspected corruption by several associates of the prime minister in the sale of German submarines to Israel.  As Netanyahu is not currently a suspect in the submarines case, if Amsalem’s bill becomes law, police would be prevented from investigating him as one should he become implicated.

Last month, Nitzan responded to criticism that authorities were dragging their feet in the graft probes against the prime minister. He said that the investigations had been taking longer than police initially anticipated due to unforeseen developments in the cases, though he declined to provide specifics.

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