The ethics and legality of indicting PM Netanyahu before elections

While some have argued that voters should be informed of the prime minister’s corruption charges before heading to the polls, others have denounced it as undemocratic.

Netanyahu speaks at a coalition faction meeting (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Netanyahu speaks at a coalition faction meeting
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
 After consulting with a team of legal experts, Israel’s Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit has indicated that he will announce whether he will indict Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on corruption charges before the general election scheduled for April 9.
Mandelblit noted that he was under “an obligation to decide” on the matter so that citizens are fully cognizant of the legal proceedings against the prime minister before heading to the voting booths in the spring.
Early polling indicates Netanyahu would win easily. Experts contend that if he manages to clinch another mandate, the embattled leader would be better able to weather the brewing legal storm against him – several investigations in which he is accused of actions amounting to bribery.
Speaking at a press conference in Brazil on Monday, Prime Minister Netanyahu said he has no intention of resigning or dropping out of the election before the hearing process is complete.
“According to the law, the prime minister does not have to resign during the hearing process… The hearing doesn’t end until my side is heard,” he said, referring to an appeals process that would likely follow the indictment.
“Imagine what would happen if a prime minister is ousted before the hearing is finished, and then after it they decide to close the case. It’s absurd. It’s a terrible blow to democracy,” he added.
Echoing those remarks, the prime minister’s legal team issued a statement on Tuesday, noting that “it is undemocratic to begin a hearing when it cannot be concluded before the elections. It cannot be that the public would only hear one side and not the other.”
Irit Kohn, former head of the International Department at Israel’s Justice Ministry, told The Media Line “it is very important that people know exactly what stands against the prime minister before the vote. Although we have to remember that the law permits him [Netanyahu] to remain in office until the last appeal is turned down.”
The indictment should therefore be filed at least five weeks before the elections, Kohn explained, because “if it is done at the last minute, he would be unable to react to the decision.”
But there is also an ethical issue here, she contended. If, for example, a member of the Israeli parliament is indicted that person should be encouraged to leave his or her position immediately, not after a lengthy appeals process.
“A prime minister that is convicted of a crime must be able to concentrate on all the allegations against him, so when can that person actually focus on fulfilling his role as premier? Unfortunately, the law does not address this.”
This is why, she added, some European countries have immunity provisions in place that shield a prime minister from criminal charges until he or she is out of office.
Oshri Ben-Ishai, a Tel Aviv defense attorney with experience in both organized crime and party politics cases told The Media Line that the “hearing” or appeals process is crucially important.
“In past cases, such as one against former prime minister Ariel Sharon, it was an appeal that persuaded prosecutors to drop the case entirely. In short, many details emerge in the hearing that can dramatically alter the case,” he said.
“The three corruption cases against Netanyahu are all intimately connected. And in confronting them during an appeal (if there is one), he will certainly come with his own evidence, which could change the course of the investigations. This is an important facet people should understand,” Ben-Ishai concluded.
Dr. Guy Lurie, a legal researcher and expert in political ethics at the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Media Line that “Mandelblit should consider keeping in mind the public image and actual operation of the prosecution as a non-political actor.”
Nevertheless, prime minister’s case is complicated because of the upcoming election, he explained. Echoing Kohn, Lurie said that any indictment should be filed as far away as possible from the vote to ensure the integrity of the court.
But the hearing, Lurie explained, will most likely take a long time, especially considering the complexity of these corruption cases. This could allow the prime minister to survive them while in office.
In the past several months, police and judicial officials deemed there was sufficient evidence against the prime minister to charge him on counts on fraud and breach of public trust.
However, they have yet to conclude if there is enough evidence for a bribery conviction as well.
In Case 4000, the strongest against him, Netanyahu is suspected of orchestrating positive media coverage for himself from the owner of the popular Walla news site, Shaul Elovitch, who is the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq communications giant. In return, the premier allegedly helped Bezeq buy an Israeli satellite cable provider while overriding any potential anti-trust issues.
In Case 1000, the Israeli leader is accused of accepting gifts in return for providing favors to wealthy benefactors. In Case 2000, he is accused of allegedly seeking positive newspaper coverage in exchange for benefits to Arnon Mozes, owner of the Hebrew daily Yediot Ahronot.
When asked about the outcomes of these cases, Netanyahu has often relied on a mantra: “There will be nothing, as there is nothing.”