Blue and White plans Saturday anti-corruption rally in TLV

3rd Likud MK speaks out against Netanyahu immunity bill, says it will hurt party

Sharren Haskel suggests far-right MK Smotrich may be deliberately pushing legislation to shield PM from prosecution because it will damage Likud politically

Likud MK Sharren Haskel (L) and Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich speak at a conference in Jerusalem on May 27, 2018. (Gershon Elinson/ Flash90)
Likud MK Sharren Haskel (L) and Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich speak at a conference in Jerusalem on May 27, 2018. (Gershon Elinson/ Flash90)

A Likud Knesset member joined two of her colleagues on Sunday in criticizing proposed legislation that could shield Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from prosecution, warning its passage could hurt the ruling party politically.

“Do I feel uncomfortable when [Bezalel] Smotrich tries to insert a [clause on immunity] into the coalition agreements?” Sharren Haskel told Radio 101.5 on Sunday, referring to the Union of Right-Wing Parties MK, who is backing a bill to automatically grant lawmakers parliamentary immunity. “Yes, I feel uncomfortable with this.”

Haskel mused that Smotrich’s staunch support for the immunity bill could be “because he knows it hurts us, Likud.”

Despite her criticism, Heskel did not explicitly say she would oppose the bill if it were brought to a Knesset vote.

Gideon Sa’ar speaks at a Likud party conference in the central city of Lod, on December 31, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90/File)

Last week, Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar became the first lawmaker in the ruling party to come out against the prime minister’s reported plans to advance a law protecting him from indictment in a series of corruption cases.

“This legislation offers zero benefit and causes maximum damage,” Sa’ar said in an interview with Channel 12. A number of Likud lawmakers blasted Sa’ar over the remarks, while party sources told Hebrew-language media that he was trying to topple Netanyahu.

Freshman Likud MK Michal Shir, a former aide to Sa’ar, late came to his defense and said she, too, opposes “personal legislation” that could protect Netanyahu from being indicted.

And on Sunday, former Likud MK Benny Begin issued the most scathing criticism yet from within the party of the prime minister’s apparent efforts to avoid indictment.

Then Likud MK Benny Begin during a Foreign Affairs and Security Committee at the Knesset, on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“To me there is no difference between using the existing law or using some other [legal] formulation” to grant the prime minister immunity in order to dodge criminal charges, Begin told Channel 12 news.

“Such a phenomenon is called corruption,” added Begin, the son of former Likud prime minister Menachem Begin.

Netanyahu repeatedly insisted in the run-up to the elections that he would not push for legislation granting him immunity. However, several recent media reports have suggested he has decided to move forward with plans to pass such a law.

The prime minister is facing charges of fraud and breach of trust in three cases, and bribery in one of them. Netanyahu, who by law is entitled to a pre-trial hearing with the attorney general before an indictment is formally filed, has denied any wrongdoing and claims the corruption accusations are aimed at forcing him from office.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at an event marking one year since the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, on May 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A spokesman for the premier said Friday that an immunity law would not be a part of Likud’s coalition agreements with other parties to join the next government.

However, analysts said Netanyahu was likely to push ahead with some kind of legislation on the issue, noting that he had the support of his potential coalition partners even if it is not part of the signed deals.

Time running out

With the May 28 deadline to form a government quickly approaching and talks with other parties at an apparent impasse, Netanyahu is facing mounting pressure to finalize his coalition.

Though Likud (35 seats) has yet to sign an agreement with any of its prospective coalition partners, the main obstacle is seen as Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, whose five seats Netanyahu needs in order to secure a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

Without Liberman, a Likud-led coalition is expected to have 60 seats, including Shas (8 seats), United Torah Judaism (8), Kulanu (4), and the Union of Right-Wing Parties (5), one shy of a majority.

According to a Channel 12 report Sunday, a Likud negotiator reached out last month to Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay and his No. 2 Tal Russo and asked them to join the government, but was rebuffed. The Likud party denied the report.

Labor party chairman Avi Gabbay (right) with party member Tal Russo, as the results for the Knesset elections are announced at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 9, 2019. (Flash90)

On Friday, Channel 12 reported senior members of the opposition Blue and White party said Likud officials last week contacted Gadi Yevarkan to try to convince the freshman Knesset member to jump ship and join Likud.

The Likud officials offered the Ethiopia-born MK the immigration and absorption portfolio, which Liberman had reportedly demanded for Yisrael Beytenu. Yevarkan, who entered the Knesset in the 33rd slot on Blue and White’s slate, told the Likud members that he respects their party, but could not serve under its leadership, which he considers immoral, the report said.

Blue and White MK Gadi Yevarkan. (YouTube screenshot)

Yevarkan was previously a Likud member, and ran on its list for elections for the 19th Knesset, but failed to make it into the parliament.

This week’s pitch to Yevarkan was not the first time Likud reportedly tried to wrench an MK away from the opposition party.

Earlier this month, an Israeli newspaper reported that a close confidant of Netanyahu was trying to convince Blue and White MK Omer Yankelevich to join a coalition.

According to the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Natan Eshel, a Likud negotiator in the coalition talks, reached out to unnamed ultra-Orthodox figures in a bid to have Yankelevich join the coalition. Yankelevich later dismissed the report as a “fantasy” and expressed support for Blue and White and its leader Benny Gantz.

Blue and White, which also won 35 seats in April’s elections but does not have enough potential coalition partners to build a Knesset majority, is holding a rally Saturday night in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square under the banner, “Defense Shield for Democracy,” to protest Netanyahu’s reported immunity push.

Gantz and other leading figures in Blue and White are set to speak at the event.

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