Israel’s attorney general on Wednesday extended until October the deadline for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pre-trial hearing on corruption allegations, but rejected a request for a 12-month delay.
Netanyahu won a fifth term in office in a general election last month but now faces the prospect of becoming the first sitting Israeli premier to be indicted.
Last month, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit set a July 10 deadline for the premier to excercise his right to a formal hearing to defend himself, before corruption charges are filed against him.
In February, Mandelblit had announced his intention to indict Netanyahu on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery, following up on police recommendations.
A letter from Mandelblit’s office to Netanyahu attorney Amit Hadad, made public Wednesday by the justice ministry, refers to Hadad’s request to put back the hearing until May 14, 2020 so that he can fully examine police evidence passed to him last week.
In what is considered the most serious of the cases, Netanyahu is accused of advocating regulatory benefits allegedly granted to telecommunications firm Bezeq in exchange for positive news coverage for himself from a media company owned by the then Bezeq CEO.
Another involves Netanyahu allegedly seeking a secret deal with the publisher of Israel’s top-selling newspaper Yediot Aharonot to ensure positive coverage in return for pushing forward a law that would have limited the circulation of a rival paper.
The third case involves suspicions the premier and his family received luxury gifts such as cigars and champagne from wealthy individuals, including Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, in exchange for financial or personal favours.
Rejecting the request for postponement, Wednesday’s letter says: “The hearing on these three cases will be held before the attorney general on October 2-3, 2019. If necessary an additional day’s hearing - and no more - will be arranged for the following week.”
Handover of the police evidence had been delayed because of non-collection of the files by Netanyahu’s lawyers, in protest over unpaid fees.
The prime minister has called the allegations against him a “witch hunt.”
Even if he is charged, Netanyahu, 69, would not legally be forced to stand down until he had been convicted and had exhausted all avenues for appeal.