With Snap Election in Sight, Netanyahu to Ask for Another Delay in Pre-trial Hearing

Israel's Justice Ministry is expected to deny the prime minister's request, maintaining that elections are not relevant to the hearing in his corruption cases

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File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he enters the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 29, 2019.
File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he enters the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 29, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to ask Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to postpone his pre-trial hearing date again, sources close to Netanyahu said.

Last week Mendelblit said he would put the hearing off by three months, to October 2. Netanyahu had initially asked to schedule the hearing in May 2020, and the September 17 election would be a reason to put off the date again, the sources said.

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The Justice Ministry is expected to deny the request, maintaining that elections are not relevant to the hearing, which is a legal procedure conducted by lawyers, in the absence of the suspect himself. Netanyahu is now represented by one attorney, Amit Hadad. If he decides to hire new lawyers, it would take them months to prepare for the hearing, which provides another reason to ask for a delay.

>> Read more: Netanyahu indictment: What are the charges and what happens next | Explained

Netanyahu is suspected of taking bribes in the Bezeq-Walla case, and of breach of trust in the cases centering on receiving expensive gifts from wealthy businessmen and seeking to slant Yedioth Ahronoth’s news coverage in his favor.

The attorney general is expected to file an indictment against Netanyahu at the beginning of 2020, even if one of the cases is closed or if the indictment clauses are altered. So Netanyahu, if he is reelected prime minister on September 17 and manages to form a government, will have about three months to pass a law to prevent his prosecution. Once the indictment is filed, the law cannot be applied retroactively.

Under the existing immunity law, Netanyahu can ask the Knesset to keep his immunity from prosecution in place, and presumably his request would be granted. The High Court of Justice, if the issue were brought before it, would be expected to revoke such a Knesset decision on the basis of past precedents, and rule that preserving the prime minister’s immunity would be highly improper.

However, Likud figures said that if Netanyahu were to pass a law before the hearing that prevented his being prosecuted, it would probably empty the hearing of any meaning. This option would leave Netanyahu a much narrower window, making it more difficult for him to advance the immunity bill.

If Netanyahu wins the September 17 election, the president could task him with forming the government at least three days afterward and give him 28 days to do so. If he needed an extension, as he did this month, he would get 14 more days. If he set up a government and had it sworn in, he would have only a few days left to pass a bill that prevented his prosecution.

Because of this, Netanyahu, if he headed the next government, would be expected to legislate an amendment overriding the High Court in the time period between the hearing and the indictment. Such an amendment would prevent the High Court of Justice from revoking Knesset laws or Knesset committees’ decisions.

The Knesset was dissolved Wednesday just after midnight after Netanyahu failed to assemble a government in the 42 days given him.

Another possibility is that Netanyahu’s lawyer doesn’t show up to the hearing. If this happens, Mendelblit could file an indictment against Netanyahu already the next day.

The previous date Mendelblit set for Netanyahu’s hearing was July 10, and the prime minister asked to postpone it, pointing to the huge scope of material. Mendelblit granted the request in part, writing that there was no justification for such a long delay.

He decided, however, to put the hearing off by some three months, beyond the three months he initially allocated, “which also exceed the time framework in the guidelines,” he wrote in his reply to Netanyahu’s lawyer.

“There is no justification for setting the hearing – as you request – for a year after the date on which the investigative material is collected, which would harm the vital public interest of deciding on the case as soon as possible,” he wrote.

The election date also affects the appointment of the new state prosecutor, who is to replace Shai Nitzan. Nitzan’s six-year appointment is due to expire on December 15 this year.

It is doubtful whether the new government will have time to appoint a committee to select a new state prosecutor by then. The current caretaker government has no power to decide on such senior appointments.

The new government will have two options: to appoint an acting prosecutor, perhaps one of Nitzan’s deputies, or to extend Nitzan’s tenure, which would require the cabinet’s approval. The first option appears more likely, and is similar to the solution found when Roni Alsheich left his post as police commissioner.

The term of Acting Police Commissioner Moti Cohen is also expected to be extended now. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked received a few months’ extension in her post, but since this is a caretaker government, her powers are limited.

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