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Netanyahu Could Evade Trial by Becoming President And Israeli Law Has No Power to Stop Him - Expert

© REUTERS / POOL NewIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a speech at his Jerusalem office, regarding the new measures that will be taken to fight the coronavirus, March 14, 2020
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a speech at his Jerusalem office, regarding the new measures that will be taken to fight the coronavirus, March 14, 2020 - Sputnik International
The prospect of Netanyahu becoming Israel's president is regarded as problematic by the country's media, primarily because that position should be filled by a person with a stainless reputation, not by somebody who has been indicted in a series of graft probes.

In July, Israel's President Reuven Rivlin will vacate his post and the members of the Israeli parliament will need to elect a new head of state, who will man the position for the next seven years.

According to Israeli law, anyone who is a citizen and resident of Israel can become the country's president and now reports suggest that one of the people eyeing that position is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. 

In Israel, where the presidency is merely symbolic and where the President serves as a role model, allegations that Netanyahu might end up taking the top post have stirred criticism and harsh reactions from the general public.

The reason for this is Netanyahu's ongoing legal battles. Last year, the PM was indicted in a series of graft probes that include buying positive press and receiving illegal gifts from rich donors. Although Netanyahu denies these allegations, many Israelis are certain that a person with corruption charges cannot serve as the country's prime minister, let alone president.

Corruption Charges Not a Problem

But there is a catch: Israel's law doesn't see it as an obstacle. 

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"Israel's basic law doesn't limit a person that was charged with bribery from running for the presidency. This is because the President of Israel doesn't hold any functional powers. But it is obvious that it has to be a person that can give an example to all," says Prof. Suzie Navot, an expert on constitutional and parliamentary law.

It is not yet clear why Netanyahu would potentially want to relinquish his post, where he enjoys power and influence, and opt for a position that involves mainly receiving the credentials of foreign diplomats, participation in symbolic ceremonies and granting pardons to prisoners.

But Israeli media is certain that the idea behind the move is simple -- it would help Netanyahu evade trial.

"While the Prime Minister of Israel can be tried, the president is immune to such an activity. Israeli law doesn't allow (authorities) to prosecute him for offences committed during his seven years in office. Nor does it give permission to try him for those he'd committed before he assumed that post. I don't know whether this is what motivates Netanyahu but I can understand the logic behind those reports," the expert explains.

In February, a court in Jerusalem is set to start listening to witnesses in Netanyahu's cases and the PM is expected to attend those sessions. Israeli media believes that he would like to avoid those images and by assuming the presidential post he would not only be able to achieve that goal but would also manage to buy himself time.

"You just don't know what's going to happen in these seven years. Witnesses might not even remember the details they do now. And Netanyahu will be seven years older and that might influence the trial," says Navot.

Guessing the intentions of the PM and acknowledging the holes in Israel's legislation, in May several members of the opposition tried to pass a bill that would prevent a person with criminal charges from running for president. But they failed to collect the necessary amount of signatures to turn that proposal into a law.

High Court to the Rescue?

Now, as reports of Netanyahu's intentions seem to be emerging, the case might reach the desks of Israel's High Court judges, who would need to decide if he could run for the highest post. 

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Israel's High Court interfered in similar processes in the past. In May, eleven judges of the institution ruled that Netanyahu could form a government, despite pleas submitted by liberal NGOs that called on the body to prevent him from doing so because of his corruption charges.

Navot believes that if Netanyahu makes his reported intention public, similar petitions will reach the court again and the judiciary will have to make a decision on whether to keep them at bay or interfere and face a potential backlash from the public, that very often rejects its snooping into the country's political affairs.

"The court has the power to interfere. They might say that to be Israel's president you need to be pure and be a role model but we have never been in this situation before, and if the members of the Knesset, from the left, right and centre, end up choosing him, the court might decide that it would be better for it to keep a distance from meddling into these affairs."
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