Ultra-Orthodox MK says he’d weigh law shielding Netanyahu from graft charges
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Ultra-Orthodox MK says he’d weigh law shielding Netanyahu from graft charges

Moshe Gafni downplays bribery allegation against PM, saying ‘it isn’t espionage or treason’ and backing so-called ‘French law’ if premier is reelected

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) in the Knesset on November 24, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) in the Knesset on November 24, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A prominent ultra-Orthodox MK on Tuesday expressed potential support for a law that would shield Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from imminent corruption charges should he win the April 9 Knesset elections.

“We will go to elections and see the results. If it turns out the public trusts Netanyahu, knowing what is happening with him, we should consider a move that will prevent him being put on trial,” Moshe Gafni, head of the Lithuanian Degel Hatorah faction within the United Torah Judaism party, told Israel Radio.

Facing a possible indictment in three corruption cases, including one charge of bribery, Netanyahu has been rumored to be planning to condition entry to the post-election coalition he hopes to form on support for the so-called “French law,” which would shelter him from prosecution as long as he remains in office.

Preempting the need for any such move, MK Bezalel Smotrich, number two in the new Union of Right Wing Parties and chair of the hard-line National Union faction within it, last week filed a bill that would give lawmakers increased powers to block charges against sitting Knesset members, including the prime minister.

Netanyahu’s allies have proposed several pieces of legislation designed to grant him immunity and prevent media reports about them.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a July 2015 cabinet meeting, when Mandelblit was serving as cabinet secretary. (Emil Salman/Pool)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced February 28 that he plans to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing, in three graft cases, on several charges, including bribery in the far-reaching Bezeq corruption probe.

“I would like a public servant to be modest and humble and not to deal with things of the kind the prime minister is suspected of,” Gafni said Tuesday, but added that “at the end of the day, the law says the prime minister can stay in office unless there is a final verdict.”

He also sought to downplay the bribery and fraud charges recommended by Mandelblit, saying the suspicions against Netanyahu “aren’t grave, it isn’t espionage or treason,” and adding that the “French law” should be weighed “if we are talking about financial matters that aren’t significant.”

“We act in accordance with the law,” Gafni said. “We have consistently supported the right and Netanyahu in recent years.”

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

At a Times of Israel event last week, 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. The first would be “the immunity bill,” introduced by Smotrich, “that says you are not allowed to take a sitting prime minister to court,” said Lapid. “He will pass the extended French bill, which says that police may not even investigate a prime minister. Finally, he will pass a bill significantly limiting the ability of the Supreme Court to overrule bills” — so that the court cannot overrule those first two laws. “This is ‘the end of the world as we know it,’ as the song says,” warned Lapid.

United Torah Judaism and fellow ultra-Orthodox party Shas have been the premier’s most dependable coalition partners for many years and were among the first to announce they would join a Netanyahu-led government even if he is formally charged.

Netanyahu has, in turn, been a comfortable partner for the Haredi parties, giving them control over key roles such as the Interior and Religious Affairs ministries, allocating generous budgets for religious seminaries and yeshivas, and upholding the exemptions they enjoy from mandatory military service.

File: MK Moshe Gafni, right, and then-health minister Yaakov Litzman in the Knesset, September 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During his interview, Gafni also defended his party chief, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who is suspected of attempting to prevent the extradition of former school principal Malka Leifer to Australia, where she is wanted on 74 accounts of child sex abuse.

Litzman allegedly ordered a psychiatrist to falsify a report deeming her mentally unfit for trial. He denies the charge.

Litzman has also been accused of aiding several other sex offenders, including sex offender rabbi Eliezer Berland, and of organizing preferential medical treatment for members of his Gur Hasidic sect.

“Unlike suspicions against others, he didn’t take anything for himself — he helps people,” Gafni said. “Whether it is permitted or prohibited — he claims it is permitted and I hope he’s right.”

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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