Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reluctantly agreed to attend an October pre-indictment hearing which will decide his fate in three corruption cases.
Facing today’s deadline by which he must inform Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, whether he will attend the hearing, Netanyahu’s lawyer Amit Hadad announced that “we will come to the hearing, but it would have been right to reconsider the date and delay it”.
In a video posted online, Hadad stressed that “we believe there are significant arguments justifying postponing the [hearing] date” and complained of “dozens of missing documents” in the case files provided to him.
The case files were made available on 10 April, one day after Israel’s general election, as requested by Netanyahu in a bid to prevent leaks to the media. The prime minister’s legal team, however, refused to collect the evidence for weeks. This was seen as an attempt to delay proceedings while Netanyahu raced to form a ruling coalition, a task in which he ultimately failed.
Netanyahu is now slated to appear in court on 2 and 3 October.
Netanyahu is, however, expected to petition the Supreme Court to delay the hearing, after Mandelblit last week rejected yet another request to do so. Netanyahu and his team had argued that, in light of the fact that Israel will now hold fresh elections on 17 September proceedings should be delayed, a claim which Mandelblit rejected.
One of Mandelblit’s top advisors, Gil Limon, wrote in a letter to Netanyahu’s lawyers that “the dissolution of the Knesset and the holding of new elections can’t in and of themselves constitute a consideration that justifies delaying the hearing date in the investigations concerning the prime minister”.
Limon reportedly also emphasised that, by October, Netanyahu’s legal team will have had six months to prepare for the hearing, given that the case files were made available for collection on 10 April.
Mandelblit has already delayed the hearing once, announcing in May that he would move the trial from the 10 July originally scheduled to October. The move was seen as capitulation on the part of the attorney general, who for months had stood firm against pressure from Netanyahu’s legal team. The team cited myriad reasons for requesting a delay, from concern that Mandelblit’s verdict could prejudice voters ahead of April’s general election and a disagreement over legal fees.
However, underlying the request for a delay is Netanyahu’s bid to guarantee his immunity from prosecution.
Despite promising prior to the April election that he would not seek immunity, during last month’s coalition negotiations Netanyahu pursued two avenues to this end: 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 saw 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, under which a serving MK is automatically immune from prosecution while he or she remains in office.
The second option was a “legal appendix” which Netanyahu reportedly tried to include in the coalition agreement. This would allow the Knesset to ignore rulings by the Supreme Court, meaning 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.
However, after Netanyahu last month failed to form a ruling coalition and the Knesset voted to dissolve itself, these avenues have – for now – been curtailed. Netanyahu does not however appear to have given up hope of immunity, firing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked – whose New Right (Hayemin Hehadash) party in April failed to cross the minimum threshold needed to sit in the Knesset – and replacing her with Likud loyalist Amir Ohana.
Ohana was reportedly appointed on the basis that, “unlike other Likud members, he supports changes that would grant immunity from indictment to acting prime ministers”. Yet with the Knesset effectively suspended until September, and little over two weeks between the election and Netanyahu’s presumed trial date, it is as yet unclear whether he will have enough time to force through an immunity bill to avoid prosecution.
If convicted, Netanyahu could face up to ten years in prison for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.