Opinion |

Mendelblit, Decide Now

Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak
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Israel's attorney general Avichai Mandelblit arrives at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem, on Thursday, October 3, 2019.
Israel's attorney general Avichai Mandelblit arrives at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem, on Thursday, October 3, 2019.Credit: Oded Balilty,AP
Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak

Given our crazy legal and political situation, a swift decision by the attorney general is vital. Its absence is a key reason for our current mess. We need to end the surreal situation in which the “gatekeepers” — the police and prosecution, and eventually judges, too — are being threatened by Benjamin Netanyahu’s envoys and mouthpieces as part of his no-holds-barred fight to evade the long arm of the law.

In two days, or 21 days after that, at most, we’ll finally know if we’re headed for a third election. Another election would be bad, but far worse is the possibility of a new government headed by Netanyahu. Should Benny Gantz agree to serve in such a government, it would likely become proof of naivete as well as being political suicide.

A minority government under Gantz, with a time limit until its expansion, is definitely both proper and feasible. It’s also possible for Likud to join such a government after Netanyahu is replaced as party leader, and that option deserves consideration. But a necessary condition for either option is for the attorney general to decide on Netanyahu’s criminal cases in the very near future.

A decision in the next 10 days would create a new legal situation that could help stabilize the political ship. Legal experts agree that under the letter of the law, an indicted prime minister can remain in office for the duration of the legal process, including any and all appeals. But most of the political establishment, from Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu to Gantz’s Kahol Lavan and leftward, as well as a sizable majority of the public, agree that this is a bad law and it’s unreasonable for Netanyahu to continue serving after being charged with serious offenses. Nevertheless, Netanyahu and his “bloc of 55 Knesset members” seek to form a government that will keep him in office.

A decision is necessary and important because despite what I said above, I have yet to find a single legal expert who will seriously argue that a Knesset member whom the attorney general has decided to indict on serious charges, after a hearing, may nevertheless form a new government. And “Knesset member” is in fact what Netanyahu’s status would be while trying to obtain the 61 signatures he would need to be given another chance to form a government.

This isn’t a question of cutting short a prime minister’s term because he was indicted, but rather of whether someone the attorney general has already decided to prosecute on serious charges — after delving deeply into the evidence, including via a hearing — may form a new government. There’s no place for arguments like “it’s what the people want” or “MKs have the sovereign power to choose him as prime minister.” The people didn’t elect him prime minister; they elected the Knesset. And MKs don’t know the evidence and are thus incapable of deciding his guilt; only the courts can do that.

I don’t understand why Lieberman and Gantz haven’t yet asked Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to clarify this issue. Many Likud MKs would be happy to hear the answer. It’s possible that, under the circumstances, Mendelblit would refuse to answer. But then the path would be clear for a petition to the High Court of Justice, and I find it hard to imagine the court ruling in Netanyahu’s favor.

A swift decision by Mendelblit on an indictment would put this issue squarely on the table. And the moment it becomes clear that indeed, a person suspected of serious crimes whom the attorney general has definitively decided to indict cannot evade prosecution by means of “forming a new government,” the path will be clear to a swift personnel change in Likud, thereby removing from the agenda the entire issue of an “incapacitated” prime minister.

This is how the path should be paved to forming a government headed by Gantz, possibly a broad one, and to ending the mockery Netanyahu has been making for the past year and more of the rule of law, of public norms and of all Israelis.

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