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Netanyahu to curtail Israel Supreme Court, guarantee immunity from prosecution

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives an address from his office in Jerusalem on 3 April 2019, announcing that the remains of Sergeant First Class Zachary Baumel, a soldier missing since the 1982 Lebanon war, had been returned to the country. [MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images]
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images]

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to advance a bill which will curtail the power of the country’s Supreme Court, a move which could guarantee his immunity from prosecution for corruption.

The bill is slated to be included in the coalition agreement and government guidelines as a “legal appendix” and will outline Netanyahu’s plan to reform Israel’s judicial system. Coalition talks have been ongoing since Israel’s general election last month, with Netanyahu this weekend asking Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, for a two week extension to allow negotiations to continue.

According to Haaretz, the bill would see the power of the Supreme Court curtailed by allowing the Knesset and government ministers to “ignore its rulings in administrative matters, not just in cases where it strikes down legislation”. “Such legislation would essentially neutralize the Supreme Court in its capacity as the High Court of Justice […] by turning its decisions into suggestions instead of legally binding rulings,” the Israeli daily added.

The move will likely be seen as evidence of Netanyahu’s capitulation to the most extreme right-wing elements slated to join his coalition, namely the Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP) which is comprised of the Jewish Home, National Union and Otzma Yehudit parties.

Haaretz today reported that “only a few people have viewed the contents of this legal appendix, but it is being coordinated with the Union of Right-wing Parties, whose MK [Knesset Member] Bezalel Smotrich has been actively involved in the discussions and wording”. Smotrich has long vowed to curtail the powers of the Supreme Court and, alongside his ultra-nationalist URWP colleague Itamar Ben Gvir, has pushed to be given the justice portfolio and a spot on the Judicial Appointments Committee, which selects Israel’s judiciary.

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The inclusion of the bill in the coalition agreement is given additional significance by the fact that, if implemented, it could grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution in the myriad corruption cases levelled against him.

After several years-long investigations, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in February announced his intention to indict Netanyahu in three corruption cases, which have become known by their case numbers 1000, 2000 and 4000. Netanyahu now faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust which, if he is found guilty, could result in up to ten years in prison.

Though Netanyahu is slated to appear in court for a pre-indictment hearing no later than 10 July, he and his legal team have worked to stall the process. Prior to Mandelblit’s announcement in February, Netanyahu’s lawyers asked the attorney general to delay his verdict until after the election, fearing this could impact voters’ intentions. In March, Mandelblit agreed to delay the release of the case files until after the vote, at the request of Netanyahu’s legal team, to avoid leaks to the media.

However, though these case materials have been available for collection since 10 April, no one has gone to collect the evidence against the prime minister. Late last month, Mandelblit warned Netanyahu’s lawyers that they must receive the files and contact him to schedule proceedings by 10 May, or lose the opportunity to present their case before criminal charges were handed down.

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Yet just one day before the 10 May deadline, the legal team asked to delay the hearing beyond July. On Sunday, when Israel’s Justice Ministry sent a courier directly to the office of Netanyahu’s attorney to deliver the case documents, as well as a letter detailing Mandelblit’s response to the request for a delay, the attorney’s office staff refused to receive it. In a subsequent statement, the Justice Ministry called the refusal “puzzling”, adding that Mandelblit would now “weigh his moves accordingly”.

Responding to the refusal, a Justice Ministry official told Ynet that “no one is under any illusions: Netanyahu wants to buy time to arrange for himself — once his coalition is ready — an immunity law that will prevent him from standing trial”.

Until 2005, Haaretz explains, the “immunity law” required the attorney general to “appear before the Knesset and explain why he wants to rescind an MK’s immunity, whereupon the Knesset House Committee can reject his request”. However, this in itself would not automatically protect Netanyahu from indictment, as the Supreme Court could rule that his immunity must be rescinded. The passage of an “override bill”, such as that detailed in the legal appendix, would allow the Knesset to supersede the Supreme Court’s decision and enable Netanyahu to avoid indictment as long as he remains in office.

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