By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received on Wednesday a three-month delay, until October, for a hearing to argue against the attorney-general’s plan to indict him on graft charges.
Netanyahu’s attorneys had requested a postponement until May 2020 to give them more time to examine the evidence in three corruption cases, in which he denies wrongdoing, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit’s office said.
In a letter to one of Netanyahu’s lawyers that was released to the media, Mandelblit said he was shifting the dates for the hearing from July to Oct. 2-3. He said a longer delay to a year from now would have “harmed the vital public interest in deciding as soon as possible” whether to issue an indictment.
In office for the past decade, Netanyahu won a fifth term in April despite an announcement by Mandelblit in February that he intended to charge him with fraud and bribery, pending a hearing with the attorney-general.
Set to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister in July, the right-wing leader has called the allegations a political witch-hunt and said he has no intention of resigning if charged, with a renewed public mandate to govern.
Netanyahu, who formally heads an interim administration, is trying to put together a new coalition with right-wing, ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties that would give him control of 65 of parliament’s 120 seats.
Under law, he has until May 29 to inform President Reuven Rivlin that he has formed a new government. If he fails – which political commentators say is unlikely – Rivlin can ask another party leader to try.
With a new parliament already sworn in, members of Netanyahu’s Likud party have said they will work towards granting him parliamentary immunity from prosecution while he serves as prime minister.
Expecting legal challenges, they also have been advocating legislation that would annul any Supreme Court ruling rescinding immunity. Opposition legislators have described any attempt to shield Netanyahu or put limitations on Israel’s highest court as threats to Israeli democracy.
Postponing the hearing with Mandelblit could take some of the pressure off Netanyahu’s loyalists to rush immunity moves through parliament in the initial days of a new government.
In one of the investigations against him, Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully receiving gifts, including champagne and cigars, from wealthy businessmen.
In a second case, he is alleged to have negotiated a deal with the owner of Israel’s best-selling daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, for better coverage in return for legislation that would slow the growth of a rival daily newspaper.
Netanyahu is also suspected of granting regulatory favours to the country’s leading telecommunications company, Bezeq Telecom Israel, in return for positive coverage on a news website controlled by Bezeq’s former chairman.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)