No Legal Grounds Forcing Netanyahu to Resign as PM, Attorney General Says

In legal opinion, AG says issue of temporary leave-of-absence should be left in the public-political field ■ Matter of Netanyahu's four ministerial portfolios to be examined further down the line

Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem, July 1, 2016
Uriel Sinai / NYT

There are no legal grounds to force the resignation or leave-of-absence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in light of his indictment in three corruption cases, Israel's Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced on Monday.

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The attorney general was speaking at a meeting held to discuss the administrative and constitutional implications of his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while he is prime minister of a transitional government, and after neither he nor Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz managed to form a government.

The judiciary's opinion is a crucial point of contention: According to 1993 High Court of Justice decision in the case of two members of Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet at the time, Arye Dery and deputy minister Rafael Pinchasi, ministers are expected to resign if serious criminal charges are filed against them.

Addressing whether the legal precedent applies to Netanyahu's position as prime minister, Mendelblit said that the Basic Law on the Government “does not exhaustively spell out the circumstances that might lead to the incapacitation” of the prime minister. 

“The language of the law and its purpose are primarily directed at a situation in which circumstances, subjectively or objectively, as a practical matter, make it impossible for him to continue to function as prime minister,” Mendelblit said.

As Netanyahu is the first prime minister to face criminal charges, there is no legal opinion as to whether the Dery-Pinchasi precedent applies to his position. The issue will likely be raised through a petition filed to the High Court of Justice.

Mendelblit did not comment on whether Netanyahu will be allowed to form a government or not, and said the issue of whether the prime minister should be forced to drop his ministerial portfolios - he also acts as health, welfare, diaspora and agriculture ministers - would be examined further down the line.

Haaretz reported last week that the Likud leader was planning to relinquish his cabinet positions, and Kahol Lavan filed a petition with the attorney general on Friday to that effect

"The issue of a temporary leave-of-absence should be left to the public and political sphere," Mendelblit added in his decision.

Last week, Mendelblit filed the indictment against Netanyahu, charging him of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three cases dubbed 4000, 2000 and 1000.

Case 4000 alleges the prime minister had quid-pro-quo relations with a media mogul, offering him regulatory benefits in exchange for favorable news coverage on a popular news site owned by his company.

In the indictment, Mendelblit said Netanyahu acted "with favoritism and put himself in a conflict of interests between his public duties and personal affairs."

Case 2000 also centers on Netanyahu's alleged intention to receive positive coverage in the media, this time from the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth and its website, Ynet.

Netanyahu was caught on tape telling the paper's publisher Arnon Mozes he would convince competitor Israel Hayom, owned by Netanyahu's patron Sheldon Adelson, to limit its circulation. In exchange, the police say, Netanyahu asked Mozes to cover his government less critically and stop attacking him personally.

Case 1000, which is considered the most straightforward of the three, involves old-fashioned favor-trading. The premier and his wife are alleged to have received lavish gifts amounting to over 1 million shekels (about $280,000) from two wealthy friends — Israeli-born Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer — in exchange for political favors such as promoting the two moguls’ business interests or obtaining visas.

Netanyahu now has 30 days to get the Knesset to grant him immunity so that he may avoid criminal trial. The timeline is crucial, but the political apparatus is badly prepared for this historic occurence.

Crucially, the Knesset currently lacks a House Committee, which is the only body authorized to consider a request for immunity before it is sent to the Knesset floor – and it might take up to six months to form one.