Can Benjamin Netanyahu form a coalition under indictment?

High Court keeps door open for tycoons to fund PM legal defense

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit (R) (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit (R)
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit was ordered by the High Court of Justice on Thursday to give his opinion by Tuesday about whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form the next government despite the bribery indictment pending against him.
Both Mandelblit and the High Court have already rejected several petitions seeking to fire Netanyahu on a variety of grounds dating back to the indictment being issued on November 21, 2019.
This is despite the fact that Mandelblit is the one who issued the indictment against Netanyahu.
Some of the several petitioning good-government groups are slightly more hopeful of winning over the court this time because this is the final-crunch moment where the court can weigh in.
Until now, the High Court had rejected most petitions as premature based on the idea that it was unknown whether Netanyahu would be tasked to form the next government.
With the deal between Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz now having been made, that issue is no longer theoretical.
However, during one of the petitions, Mandelblit and the High Court did delve into aspects of the merits and gave strong hints that they would voice disapproval of Netanyahu for failing to step down voluntarily, while throwing up their hands that current Knesset law does not require forcing him out prior to conviction and exhausting all appeals.
Even if Netanyahu is convicted in his trial, which is due to start May 24, the process could easily run between one to three years, depending on how quickly the Jerusalem District Court presses the case.
One other difference from prior petitions is that this time, the Yesh Atid-Telem Party petitioned against the coalition deal, including against the multiple changes it requires to the Basic Laws and the enormous number of ministries which will be created.
It is possible that Mandelblit and the High Court will allow Netanyahu to run, but could void one or more specific provisions of the Netanyahu-Gantz deal.
Still, had Mandelblit or the High Court wanted to take Netanyahu out of the political arena, their strongest chance for doing that would have been prior to the March 2 election, when the Likud could have picked a new candidate.
Based on prior comments of Mandelblit’s office and the justices about their sensitivity to the public will during elections, it is much less likely that either of them will seek to disqualify Netanyahu now that he also has Gantz’s support to avoid a fourth election.
Originally, Mandelblit was already due to give his opinion this week, but after additional petitions were filed, the High Court extended the time to respond until Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the court also ruled on Thursday in favor of Netanyahu in the ongoing battle over whether he can have tycoon ally Spencer Partridge pay his legal defense fees for the bribery case.
The court said that the petition had been filed prematurely because Netanyahu has not yet received final authorization to receive financial backing from Partridge in his legal defense.
Rather, on February 25, a new comptroller committee, viewed by observers as more friendly to Netanyahu than the previous panel, agreed to hear the prime minister’s request for up to NIS 10 million of his legal fees to be funded by Partridge.
Mandelblit and State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman previously authorized the prime minister in September 2019 to receive a NIS 2 million loan from Partridge, but prior to that, a previous comptroller committee panel denied Netanyahu’s request for straight-up having his legal defense funded by tycoons on three separate occasions.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel responded to the February 25 decision by petitioning the High Court, arguing that the committee was in Netanyahu’s pocket and could not retract its previous rulings against him.
By rejecting the petition on procedural grounds, the court did tip its hat that it is less likely to step in even after the committee makes a final authorization to Netanyahu regarding his fees.
The most recent rejection of Netanyahu’s request for help from tycoons came in June 2019.
At the time, Netanyahu lashed out at the previous committee, saying it was denying him the same rights as prior ministers who received donations to pay for their defense in public corruption cases. He also claimed that the committee had politicized the process and usurped or manufactured new authorities to block his rights which it did not legally have.
The committee responded almost as quickly, saying that Netanyahu is unique because he is a serving prime minister. They said that all prior cases he cited to prove that he was being mistreated were related to former ministers, who resigned their posts once in legal trouble.
Once they resigned their posts, they no longer had ongoing or current conflicts of interest to receive donations, the committee said.
In other words, the committee implied that Netanyahu can get his legal bills paid for if he resigns, but must pay if he wants to stay in office. They suggested that while in office he will be able to help the tycoons in return for their money, and allegedly has in the past.
Part of the dispute between Netanyahu and the previous committee was the prime minister’s refusal to fully reveal his financial situation and ability to self-fund his defense.
But by July 2019, Englman, viewed as close to Netanyahu, had replaced former comptroller Joseph Shapira. Shortly after that, Englman replaced the comptroller committee as well.
Significant media coverage has shown connections between new committee members and the Likud, with some new members even resigning, but most weathering the criticism. Englman has rejected any notion that he or the committee favor Netanyahu.
The new committee said that it was not bound by the previous three rulings of the same committee because it is an administrative panel and not a court.
Furthermore, the new committee said that circumstances have substantially changed since June 2019, because in November, the indictment against Netanyahu was filed and he must now imminently pay to defend himself at trial in a case which has over 1,000 binders of evidence.
In an earlier exchange about his finances, after Netanyahu accused the previous committee of holding his legal defense hostage, the committee responded by publicizing investment links he had to tycoon and cousin Natan Milikovsky, which have raised the specter of a new potential criminal probe.