Israel’s Netanyahu pressed to sign conflict-of-interest deal

FILE – In this Sept. 8, 2020 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during his visit to the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem. With Netanyahu lashing out at him nearly every day, Israel’s attorney general is pressing the prime minister to sign a conflict-of-interest agreement that would bar him from influencing key appointments that could affect his corruption trial. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool Photo via AP, File)

JERUSALEM (AP) — With Israel’s prime minister lashing out at him nearly every day, the country’s attorney general is pressing Benjamin Netanyahu to sign a conflict-of-interest agreement barring him from influencing key appointments that could affect his corruption trial.

Charged in a series of scandals, Netanyahu has long accused police, prosecutors and the media of trying to oust him in a deep-state conspiracy. Netanyahu has stepped up those attacks in recent days, following a pair of TV reports alleging cover-ups by police and prosecutors, including a case of possible conflict of interest by a police investigator.

“Is it possible the attorney general didn’t know about this behavior?” Netanyahu told his Likud Party on Wednesday, calling for an independent investigation. “Is it possible the attorney general didn’t approve this behavior?”

In a speech last week, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said the trial should take place in the courtroom, not in the “public square,” and warned against attempts to “delegitimize” the legal system. He reiterated his position that Netanyahu can remain in office while on trial, but only if there is a conflict-of-interest agreement that “prevents him from any possibility of influencing his personal criminal issues by exercising his governmental powers.”

The Justice Ministry said Thursday that Netanyahu’s legal team was discussing the matter with government lawyers. “In the end, an agreement is expected to be signed to prevent a conflict of interest,” it said.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party declined comment.

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving wealthy associates and powerful media moguls.

He denies wrongdoing and has repeatedly tried to use the platform of his office to challenge the allegations and turn public opinion against the country’s legal system.

Critics accuse him of threatening Israel’s democratic institutions in a politically motivated campaign of self-preservation, even at a time when Israel is dealing with a raging coronavirus outbreak.

Channel 12 TV reported this week that police covered up knowledge of an investigator’s romantic relationship with the sister of a key witness and defendant in one of the corruption cases.

Netanyahu’s rival and coalition partner Benny Gantz has vowed to support law enforcement, calling Netanyahu’s repeated attacks a “danger to Israeli democracy.”

“This is not legitimate criticism; rather, it is purely an attempt to dismantle and to crush,” Gantz said.

Thousands of Israelis have been demonstrating weekly outside Netanyahu’s official residence throughout the summer, saying he should resign while on trial and accusing him of failing to address the economic crisis caused by the outbreak.

The Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White formed their coalition in May after battling to a stalemate in three consecutive elections in under a year. Under the deal, Netanyahu and Gantz will rotate as prime minister, with Ganz’s official title now being the “alternate prime minister.”

There is deep distrust between the sides, and protracted paralysis has prevented the government from making key appointments, such as that of a national police chief.

Critics believe that Netanyahu is eager to appoint supporters to these positions in hopes of delaying or even halting his trial, which after beginning with procedural hearings this year is set to kick into high gear in January with its evidentiary stage.