Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has been consulting with top judicial officials, including former Supreme Court justices and former attorney generals, on whether there are any legal obstacles to his announcing a pre-indictment hearing for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in three graft cases before the coming April elections, Hadashot television news reported Tuesday.
According to the television report, the attorney general has ruled out closing the cases and is likely to announce an indictment for the prime minister in the corruption cases, subject to a hearing. Such a move would send a strong signal that an indictment is likely to follow, complicating Netanyahu’s determination to lead his Likud party in the April 9 elections.
Responding to the Hadashot news report, the prime minister’s legal team said such a decision would be a “blow to the democratic process” because the hearing would not be completed by the time elections are held, casting an unfair cloud over Netanyahu.
During a meeting with officials last week at a hotel outside of Jerusalem, Mandelblit reportedly said, “Announcing a [hearing] decision before elections is our duty to the public that is going to the polls. I will do my utmost to finish the work as soon as possible.”
Those who took part were former presidents of the Supreme Court Aharon Barak, Dorit Beinisch, and Meir Shamgar; deputy chief justice Elyakim Rubinstein; former state prosecutors Edna Arbel, Moshe Lador, and Gabriel Bach; and former attorney-generals Yehudah Weinstein and Yitzhak Zamir.
Army Radio reported later Tuesday that the meeting was part of a long pre-arranged conference, being held for the second year running, at which various legal issues were discussed, and was not set up specifically for Mandelblit to consult with the ex-officials regarding the Netanyahu cases.
He specifically asked those gathered if they believed there was a legal obstacle preventing an announcement before the elections. All those present were of the opinion that a decision on a hearing should be taken and announced before the elections, the report said.
There was unanimous agreement with Mandelblit to publish a hearing decision up to one month before the elections, the report said.
Netanyahu’s legal team maintained that a hearing would clear Netanyahu’s name, but because there is not enough time to complete the process before the elections, it should not even begin.
“We believe there will not be a [pre-indictment] hearing because nothing [untoward] has happened,” Netanyahu’s lawyers said in a statement sent to journalists.
“It is undemocratic to start a hearing before the elections when it can not be concluded until after the elections. It is inconceivable that the public will hear only one side and not the other,” they argued, claiming that many cases are closed following a hearing.
“Declaring a hearing during the election campaign without allowing the other side to respond would therefore be a distortion of the voter’s will and a severe blow to the democratic process,” they said.
Earlier Tuesday Channel 10 television news cited senior judicial officials as saying that Netanyahu won’t be legally required to resign if Mandelblit announces he will be indicted pending a hearing, but there will be a “problem” should he refuse to step down if he is ultimately charged.
The unnamed officials were responding to Netanyahu saying Monday that he would not resign if the attorney general decides to press charges against him, pending a hearing, before elections.
Channel 10 TV quoted legal sources as saying the hearing process should take about a year, and that there would be no legal issues if Netanyahu chooses to continue serving as premier during that time.
Asked during a press conference in Brazil, where he was on an official visit, how he would proceed if summoned by the attorney general for a hearing, Netanyahu said Monday: “If that happens, I won’t resign.”
The requirement for the attorney general to provide a hearing for a suspect before a final decision to press charges against him, Netanyahu argued, exists precisely so that the suspect can tell his side of the story. “The hearing doesn’t end until my side is heard,” he said.
The law does not clearly state that a prime minister who has been indicted must resign. Rather, it says he must step down only after he has been convicted of an offense that carries moral turpitude, like bribery or breach of trust, and the appeal process has been exhausted.
The Knesset can ask the prime minister to step down before that process is complete, but if it does not, he can, in theory, remain in office.
Last week’s announcement that elections will be held in April — seven months earlier than planned — came as Mandelblit began reviewing the criminal cases against Netanyahu, marking the most high-stakes stage yet of a several-year legal entanglement that could upend the country’s political system.
Police have recommended Netanyahu be indicted in each of the three probes against him.