Forget Netanyahu, Israel Needs Legislation to Prevent Another Indicted Prime Minister

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Anti-Netanyahu protester in front of the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, last month.
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

Ehud Barak and Zvi Bar’el stressed in their essays in Haaretz Wednesday the importance of passing two laws to prevent Benjamin Netanyahu’s undesired return to the prime minister’s residence.

One bill mandates term limits for the prime minister; the other would prohibit a criminal defendant from serving as prime minister.

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Yesh Atid’s coalition agreements with New Hope and Yisrael Beiteinu contain a general statement saying: “As soon as the government is formed, and to limit a prime minister’s tenure to eight consecutive years, the Basic Law on the Knesset amendment, cooling-off period and limiting the prime minister’s term, shall be advanced.”

This is a very general, almost obscure line, that deliberately avoids any binding formulation.

This issue raises many questions. Here are a few of them: Will the limit on term limits be applied retroactively, so that a person who served as prime minister 12 or 100 years before the law was passed will be barred from jumping back into the Prime Minister’s Office for an additional eight years?

Is one of the considered forms of limitation, which is supposed to effectively block Netanyahu – imposing a four-year cooling-off period on a prime minister who has served eight years and wants to be elected to the Knesset – even constitutional? In Israel, whose system of government is parliamentary, is limiting a term of office applicable at all?

The important, just and fundamentally necessary law is the one barring a person who has been charged with criminal offenses from heading the government. Not in order to block Netanyahu’s way – the starting point of my colleagues – but because, as we already know, a situation in which an indicted prime minister is simultaneously fighting in court and leading the state is twisted and chaotic.

A little more than a year ago, the High Court of Justice ruled unanimously that there is nothing preventing Netanyahu, who had already been charged, from receiving the mandate to form a government. That was the correct decision, because the court interpreted the law that clearly states that a prime minister may be removed from office only after being convicted.

The difficult task of the new coalition, which came together in order to protect democracy, is to pull this political hot potato away from the court’s threshold and cool it in its own front yard. The court’s job is to rule according to the law, not to solve political problems or to amend laws.

Now that Netanyahu has failed to form a government and has been replaced in the wake of the last election, rather than in the wake of inappropriate interference by the court, the new coalition must introduce to the legal code a basic and very reasonable public norm that will apply to every prime minister, regardless of their political orientation.

Such a law will not be devoid of difficulties. It gives the attorney general both considerable power and enormous responsibility. This situation can be solved with an additional control mechanism, and even then it will likely be far from perfect. But even such a situation is preferable to what has happened in Israel since Netanyahu’s cases appeared, and more intensely since he was indicted and his trial started.

Such a reality – more than Netanyahu – must never be allowed to recur. Members of the new coalition say in their defense that the government was only sworn in Sunday evening and it’s too soon to complain that no decisions have been taken in this area. Some of them say the government should be given a few days to operate normally before it makes dramatic decisions.

But as reasonable as these arguments are, if there’s a clear lesson to be learned from Netanyahu’s years, one that transcends the personal psychosis that surrounds him, it is the lesson that Netanyahu himself reached in the time of Ehud Olmert: A prime minister who has been charged with crimes cannot be prime minister.

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