Israel's Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has agreed to delay Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's indictment hearing until October, bowing to months of pressure from the latter's legal team.
Mandelblit announced today that the hearing will now be held on 2 and 3 October, three months later than the July date previously mandated by the attorney general.
This comes after Netanyahu's lawyers yesterday asked Mandelblit to delay the hearing for at least a year due to the fact that it will deal with three separate corruption cases and there is therefore "a large amount of material to be read", Haaretz reported. The attorney general had given the prime minister's legal team until Monday to set a date for the hearing, but this deadline passed with no resolution.
Today's move will likely be seen as capitulation on the part of the attorney general, who for months has stood firm against pressure from Netanyahu's legal team to delay the hearing. The team has cited myriad reasons for requesting a delay, from concern that Mandelblit's verdict could prejudice voters ahead of last month's general election, fear of leaks to the media and a disagreement over legal fees.
The legal team has also employed various tactics to delay the process; ignoring Mandelblit's warnings that they must collect the case files or lose the opportunity to present their case, and refusing to receive the documents from a courier sent by Israel's Justice Ministry. On Tuesday, Netanyahu finally agreed to collect the evidence, set a hearing date and pay some of his legal fees, though it wasn't immediately clear what prompted this change of heart.
Significantly, Mandelblit's announcement will give Netanyahu time to form his coalition and take steps to make himself immune from prosecution.
Netanyahu has been engaged in coalition talks since the 9 April election. However, after over a month of discussions and having asked for a two week extension to the deadline to form a government, the newly re-elected prime minister is struggling to bridge the divides between the various factions that he had hoped would make up his ruling coalition.
If Netanyahu succeeds in forming a government before next week's deadline, the coalition is expected to work towards making him immune from prosecution. This has been pursued via two avenues: passing a law which would automatically make him immune from prosecution while in office and creating an "override bill" which will allow the Knesset to override Supreme Court verdicts on his immunity.
The first has seen Likud Knesset Member (MK) Miki Zohar, supported by controversial MK for the Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP) Bezalel Smotrich, present a bill to the Knesset which would revert back to Israel's pre-2005 immunity law.
According to the Times of Israel: "The bill proposes that MKs be granted immunity from prosecution by default unless the Knesset House Committee — which Zohar chaired in the last legislative term and is expected to continue to helm in the [new] Knesset — votes to strip the lawmaker of that right. The bill would reverse the current [post-2005] system, in which MKs are not automatically immune, but can be granted immunity by fellow MKs."
This bill has been vehemently criticised by a number of MKs, including Netanyahu's biggest internal Likud party rival Gideon Sa'ar, who publicly condemned the move. Earlier this week, reports emerged that the prime minister had "given up" on the new immunity law, saying he will instead "make do with the existing immunity law as amended in 2005" and use a number of clauses to his own advantage.
The second option is a "legal appendix" which Netanyahu has reportedly been trying to include in the coalition agreement. This would allow the Knesset to ignore rulings by the Supreme Court in all administrative matters, effectively turning its decisions into suggestions instead of legally binding rulings.
This would mean that, if the Knesset agrees to grant Netanyahu immunity and the Supreme Court rejects this decision, the court's verdict would be presented once again to the Knesset. The Knesset could then vote to ignore the ruling, leaving Netanyahu immune from prosecution for as long as he remains in office.