What Would be the Fate of a Prime Minister Convicted in a Court of Law?

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The fourth in a series of articles and videos prepared by the Israel Democracy Institute in the run-up to April 9, explaining and critiquing what goes on during an election period

If a prime minister is found guilty of a serious offense, such as bribery, which the court designates as involving “moral disgrace,” the law stipulates that his term in office ends automatically, but only once all avenues of appeal are exhausted.

Still, some legal experts believe that principles of administrative law should lead to the termination of service of a prime minister as soon as he is convicted, or even charged, with a serious offense.

The lack of clarity regarding the legal situation stems from the fact that the decision to oust an elected prime minister is one that has different constitutional implications than a similar decision with regard to a government minister.

Ultimately, one has to weigh the need to respect the wishes of the electorate, the presumption of innocence, and the prime minister’s right to due process, against norms of proper ethical behavior as detailed in the code of ethics that was proposed in 2008 by former chief justice Meir Shamgar and the Public Commission for Writing a Code of Ethics for Government Ministers.

The potential harm to the public’s confidence in the government due to a criminal suspect – or even a convicted felon – heading it, political stability, and continuity of government must also be considered when approaching this important decision.

With the possibility of the attorney general announcing an intention to indict the prime minister just weeks before national elections, Israel’s political and legal system finds itself in uncharted territory. Whether or not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is indicted, and whether he then decides to resign or chooses to wage his legal battles from the prime minister’s office, the current uncertainty does not appear to be tenable.

Once the dust clears from the Netanyahu affair, we will need to consider amendments to the law to prevent such situations from arising in the future, for example, by establishing a process of suspension for the entire duration of the legal proceedings.

The article was published in The Times of Israel.