Top legal officials expected to rule this week on Netanyahu’s political future

After criminal charges were announced, panel led by attorney general will debate whether PM can form a government, whether he must relinquish ministerial portfolios

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a press conference at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem announcing his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, November 21, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a press conference at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem announcing his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, November 21, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has formed a panel to determine whether there is any legal impediment barring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a government in the future due to the announcement of criminal charges against him.

The attorney general aims to draft and publish a legal opinion on the issue by the end of the week, reports in Hebrew media said Sunday.

The committee composed of Mandelblit, State Attorney Shai Nitzan, and Deputy Attorney Generals Raz Nizri and Dina Zilber 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.

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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting of the right-wing parties’ bloc at the Knesset on November 20, 2019. Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The top legal officials were set to hold their first discussions on Sunday, according to Army Radio.

The prospect of the attorney general curtailing Netanyahu’s political powers drew fierce criticism from some Likud members on Sunday.

“The attorney general cannot assassinate Israeli democracy, but must respect the separation of powers,” Likud minister Miri Regev told Army Radio on Sunday morning.

A report in the Globes newspaper Thursday evening said State Attorney Nitzan believes Netanyahu cannot begin a new term with the charges hanging over him. The Ynet news site on Friday reported that Mandelblit was inclined to agree.

The website quoted unnamed legal officials as saying the attorney general would likely issue his legal opinion as early as this week, ruling that although the prime minister is not compelled to give up his position due to the indictment, there are “significant legal difficulties” in him receiving a mandate to form a new government under the circumstances.

State Attorney Shai Nitzan speaks at the annual Justice Conference in Airport City, outside Tel Aviv on September 03, 2019 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

This would mean that the attorney general — who is both the head of Israel’s state prosecution and the government’s chief legal adviser — would not necessarily be able to defend Netanyahu being tasked with forming a coalition if petitions were made to the High Court of Justice.

The Justice Ministry said in a statement responding to the Friday report that Mandelblit “has not yet dealt with the various consequences of the decision to file an indictment, and has certainly reached no decision in the matter. Any reports on the matter are speculation and the sole responsibility of those reporting.”

Both the Labor Party and the Movement for Quality Government said they would appeal to the High Court to force the prime minister to step down, with further petitions expected. Though the law technically allows a prime minister to remain in power so long as a final court ruling convicting him has not been given, that law has never actually been tested before — as Netanyahu is the first leader in Israel’s history to face criminal charges while in office — and the courts will likely be compelled to debate the issue.

Netanyahu’s political woes deepen

As the legal challenges facing Netanyahu mounted, cracks began to form in the Likud party, which has, until now, staunchly defended its embattled leader.

Since becoming prime minister in 2009, Netanyahu has held an iron grip on Likud, a party in which loyalty is fiercely guarded and which has only seen a handful of leaders in its decades of existence.

But that hold has come under fire since Mandelblit announced Thursday that he would charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases, and bribery in one. The charges compounded an already fragile situation in which Netanyahu and chief rival Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party have both failed to form a government, putting the country on the path toward a dreaded third round of elections within a year.

Senior Likud party lawmaker MK Gideon Sa’ar speaks during the conference of the Israeli Television News Company in Tel Aviv on September 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On Saturday night, Netanyahu faced a challenge from within his own party as Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar called for him to open up the party to new leadership following the announcement of the long-awaited graft charges, deepening divisions in the right-wing party.

With both Netanyahu and Gantz having failed to cobble together a coalition following the September election, the Knesset is currently in a 21-day period, ending at midnight on December 11, in which any candidate receiving the support of 61 MKs can be tasked with forming a government. Failing that, a new election must be called — one in which Netanyahu has made clear he intends to run, and one that could yield a very similar result to that of the two elections already held this year.

Sa’ar, Netanyahu’s main challenger, was seeking a Likud leadership primary before the 21-day period ends, with the aim of seeing a newly elected Likud leader get a crack at forming a government, averting another election.

While no other senior Likud members have come out publicly against Netanyahu, several have declined to issue public statements backing the premier, leading to speculation of a silent mutiny. Among those are Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein and MK and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat.

Reports carried on Israeli television Friday pointed to backroom rumblings among senior Likud members who were working to dethrone him, but were having trouble uniting around a single candidate.

“We are trying to figure out how to wrest the party from his hands,” an unnamed party official was quoted telling Channel 13 news.

Despite having an indictment hanging over him, Netanyahu has vowed to remain prime minister while he fights the charges, though he will likely be forced to give up several ancillary ministries he has held onto in the transitional government.

President Reuven Rivlin (R) and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on November 21, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Following the announcement of criminal charges, 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 lifting Netanyahu’s 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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