Updated: November 22, 2019 8:41:46 pm
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, has become the first premier in Israeli history to be indicted for corruption while in office.
On Thursday, Netanyahu was charged with fraud, bribery and breach of trust in three separate criminal cases in “The State of Israel versus Benjamin, son of Benzion Netanyahu”.
The widely expected announcement, which was delayed due to national elections in April and September, has come after a four day hearing with the Prime Minister’s defence team, which took place in October.
On Thursday, about an hour after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit handed out the chargesheet against the Prime Minister, Netanyahu addressed the public from his residence, saying that the “harsh” and “severe” charges were “an attempted coup against the Prime Minister through blood libels and a biased investigation process.”
He denied any wrongdoing and added that the timing of the announcement was noteworthy and sensitive and it “highlights how much this decision is tainted by extraneous considerations, aiming to bring down a right-wing Prime Minister”.
Mandelblit, who has previously served as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, rejected the allegation that the indictment was politically motivated, and said that he had made the decision to indict with a “heavy heart, but wholeheartedly”.
An op-ed published in The Jerusalem Post on Thursday urged Netanyahu to step down.
“Netanyahu made clear (in his Thursday night address) that he is holding on to his seat and will fight tooth-and-nail until the end. This is wrong. The country has to come first. Israel has to come first. Our children have to come first. It is time to do what is responsible. It is time to step down,” it said.
What are the cases against Netanyahu?
The so-called Case 1000, Case 2000, and Case 4000 have been under investigation for over three years, and Mandelblit’s decision to charge him, which he announced before the year’s first national elections in April, came after two police reports issued in 2018 that called for his indictment, Haaretz reported.
Case 1000 pertains to the charge of fraud and breach of trust for gifts worth over $280,000 that Netanyahu and his wife Sara received from Oscar-nominated Israeli-American Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan (‘L.A. Confidential’, ‘The Revenant’, ‘Birdman’, ’12 Years a Slave’, ‘Mr & Mrs Smith’, ‘Fight Club’) and Australian businessman James Packer (the son of Kerry Packer, the founder of World Series Cricket), in return for political favours between 2007 and 2016.
Netanyahu hasn’t denied accepting these gifts. His defence maintains that it is acceptable to receive gifts from friends.
Case 2000 is about a charge of fraud and breach of trust for a deal that Netanyahu struck before the 2015 elections with Arnon ‘Noni’ Mozes, owner of the Hebrew-language Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest selling daily newspaper, for favourable coverage in return for legislation to damage the rival daily newspaper Israel Hayom.
This deal was never finalised.
Case 4000 constitutes the most serious charges against Netanyahu, of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu is alleged to have granted regulatory favours worth over $500 million to Israel’s largest telecommunications company Bezeq Telecom between 2012-2017, in return for favourable coverage.
Alongside being Prime Minister, Netanyahu served as Israel’s Communications Minister for some time. In this case, Netanyahu’s defence maintains that favourable coverage doesn’t qualify as bribery. The alleged quid pro quo was brought to light by the first time in 2015 in an investigation published by Haaretz.
What happens now?
It is important to note that indictment does not mean conviction. That process, should it ultimately reach fruition, could take months, and will be delayed due to the ongoing political deadlock.
Both Netanyahu and his centrist rival Benny Grantz have tried and failed to form a government after two elections this year that were held in April and September. If a government is not formed before the final deadline expires in the next 20 days, there will be a third round of elections.
As per Israeli law, a Prime Minister is not under obligation to step down until he has been convicted.
Therefore, Netanyahu can continue in his post throughout the legal proceedings and appeals process unless he is replaced through another election, or is convicted. His allies in Israel’s Parliament have said that they will move towards granting him parliamentary immunity from prosecution.
Fresh elections, should they ultimately happen, could delay Netanyahu’s trial until April or May 2020. According to Israeli media reports, Netanyahu, while continuing to serve as Prime Minister, may be required to give up the four ministerial posts he holds: agriculture, social affairs, health, and diaspora affairs.
Once Mandelblit formally informs Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of the decision to indict Netanyahu, the Prime Minister will have 30 days to decide if he wants to ask for parliamentary immunity, a form of procedural immunity.
Should he choose to seek immunity, The Knesset House Committee along with the plenary members will debate if Netanyahu is deserving of the immunity, and proceed to vote on it. But since there is no functional coalition government at the moment, there is also no House Committee that can discuss his immunity.
A procedural parliamentary immunity is intended to enable a Knesset member “to perform their tasks without fear of legal actions. The immunity ensures that the member “will not bear criminal or civil responsibility for any act which he performed while fulfilling his duty or in order to fulfill his duty”.
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