Attorney General: No legal barrier to Netanyahu serving as PM

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit tells Supreme Court he sees no legal case for blocking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a unity government. 

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit told the High Court of Justice Thursday he sees no legal reason to prevent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a government.

Mandelblit had to give his legal opinion in advance of the court deciding next week on eight petitions calling for Netanyahu to be barred from office because he has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

A legal decision from the 1990s bars any cabinet minister who has been indicted on a criminal charge from serving in the government,

However, that law and several court rulings found that didn’t apply to the prime minister. Petitions filed by opposition parties and the Movement for Quality Government called on the court to rule that anybody who has been indicted cannot serve as prime minister.

Netanyahu has consistently denied the charges and professed his innocence. Earlier this week, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party filed a petition with the court in support of Netanyahu serving as leader, despite that party’s previous hard-line stance calling for Netanyahu to be ousted from office.

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The court also received several petitions challenging the legality of the coalition agreement reached between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Gantz, but said that although the deal contained “significant legal difficulties,” he also thinks the coalition agreement signed by Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz should not be altered.

The coalition deal will require several changes to Israel’s Basic Laws to allow for a massive government with at least 36 cabinet ministers and just as many deputy ministers. Basic Laws are considered laws with greater force than other legislation.

Opposition Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid criticized the coalition agreement, saying it didn’t even contain the word ‘corona’ and while the economy was falling apart, all Netanyahu and Gantz cared about were the legal issues and giving away expensive cabinet portfolios.

Not only is it a waste of 900 million shekels ($260 million), they are setting up a bureaucratic monster,” Lapid tweeted. “We warned you: You can’t run a state when all you care about is your indictments.”

According to Mandelblit, the petitions point to “significant difficulties,” but they don’t constitute a valid legal reason to undo the agreement or prevent Netanyahu from heading the proposed unity government. He told the court it should reject the multiple petitions against the formation of the unity government and only consider legal issues one by one as each law was changed.

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Mandelblit’s opinion filed with the court included “warning signs” that had to be examined, but only when it comes time to turn the coalition deal into actual legislation, including a move he pointed out that would give the government more authority over the parliament.

The watchdog group Movement for Quality Government, one of the petitioners against Netanyahu, blasted the decision and expressed its frustration with the attorney general, accusing him of giving “an evasive and exasperating response.”

“We hope the court will intervene and decide that Netanyahu cannot sit on the defendants’ bench in the morning and manage the security cabinet in the evening,” group head Dr. Eliad Shraga tweeted.

“The establishment of the largest wasteful government in the history of the country during the greatest economic crisis in the history of the state – And who pays for these wastes? We do,” the organization tweeted.

Shraga’s organization called for a mass demonstration Saturday night in Tel Aviv to “stop the corrupt government. No excuses.”

Mandelblit has so far refrained from providing an official stance on the legal implications of nominating an indicted lawmaker to form a government, as Netanyahu hasn’t been formally tasked with doing so.

Opponents of Netanyahu are frustrated that Mandelblit is sticking with the specific legal issues of the day and not ruling on whether Netanyahu is legally fit to be prime minister. Until the unity agreement is ratified and laws are changed, Netanyahu remains at the helm of a caretaker government.

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However, with the pending unity deal that calls for Netanyahu to be prime minister for the first 18 months, the High Court agreed to hear petitions against Netanyahu.

A panel of 11 of the Supreme Court’s 15 justices will hear the petitions next week.

The first legal change, a bill to allow the prime minister’s job to rotate between Netanyahu for the first 18 months then Gantz for the next 18 months, passed its first reading in the Knesset Thursday with a vote of 72 for and 31 against.  The bill now goes to committee for refinement and discussion and will need to pass two more readings before it becomes law.