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High Court hears petitions to indict Netanyahu, Hanegbi

JERUSALEM, May 14 (JTA) — Israel’s High Court of Justice this week considered petitions calling for the prime minister and justice minister to be charged in connection with the Bar-On affair. The expanded panel of five justices held a marathon session Wednesday to consider whether the prime minister and justice minister should be tried for breach of trust and fraud in connection with the short-lived January appointment of Roni Bar-On as attorney general. It was not clear when the court would render a decision. Earlier in the day, the justices threw out separate petitions that called on the court to order a state commission of inquiry and make public a 995-page police report about the affair. In mid-April, police recommended indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and other top officials for fraud and breach of trust because of their handling of the Bar-On appointment. A three-month police investigation was launched after an Israel Television report alleged that Bar-On was appointed as part of a deal to provide a plea bargain to Knesset member Aryeh Deri, who is on trial for corruption. In turn, Deri allegedly promised his party’s support for the Hebron agreement, which was coming up for Cabinet approval at the time, the television report said. Though three attorneys in the prosecutor’s office also wanted to indict Netanyahu and Hanegbi, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein and State Prosecutor Edna Arbel decided last month that there was only sufficient evidence to recommend an indictment against Deri. That decision drew charges from supporters of Deri, who heads the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, that an anti-Sephardi bias had led to his indictment. The backbone of Shas support comes from religious Jews of Sephardi background. Bar-On won Cabinet approval Jan. 10, but stepped down two days later amid growing charges in political and legal spheres that he lacked the experience to hold Israel’s top legal post. Two weeks later, the Cabinet unanimously approved Rubinstein to serve as Israel’s attorney general. During Wednesday’s court proceedings, one of the petitioners accused the justices of being part of a campaign by the country’s Ashkenazi establishment against the Sephardi community. A petition to reverse the attorney general’s decision regarding Deri was also rejected. Security around the courthouse was tight Wednesday, after Shas supporters attending a rally for Deri the previous night briefly burst into the building’s entrance hall. Netanyahu said he viewed the matter seriously and had instructed Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani to look into the matter to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. Netanyahu said the high court was a cornerstone of democracy in Israel, and its justices must not be subjected to pressure or threats. Shas Knesset member Shlomo Benizri expressed regret over the incident. He said the demonstrators had ignored an appeal for order from the party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

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