AnalysisAfter Sa’ar challenges PM immunity bid, will others follow?

A Netanyahu rival’s eminently reasonable attempt at political assassination

Gideon Sa’ar managed to present his objections to the PM’s plan for evading prosecution in the most loyal and helpful terms. Which is precisely why Netanyahu so fears him

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A little over three months ago, when the Likud chose its candidates ahead of the April elections, Benjamin Netanyahu did his best to ensure that the former minister Gideon Sa’ar, who was aiming to return to politics after a break of five years spent with his family, be frozen out. Netanyahu failed, despite alleging that Sa’ar was planning a coup to oust him as prime minister. Sa’ar proved highly popular with the Likud rank-and-file, and made it back to the Knesset on April 9 as No.5 on the Likud slate.

On Thursday night, Sa’ar underlined why Netanyahu has cause to fear him. In an earnest, passionate interview on Israeli television, Sa’ar said what no other prominent Likud figure has been prepared to say publicly these past few days: Netanyahu’s behind-the-scenes bid to galvanize immunity legislation, tailored to protect him from prosecution in the three criminal cases he faces, is an effort unworthy of the prime minister, damaging for the Likud, and bad for Israel.

An experienced and sophisticated politician, Sa’ar — who has made no secret of his desire to become prime minister when the Netanyahu era is over — took care to assert his loyalty to his leader. “I support the prime minister. I think he’s a good prime minister. I think he should continue to serve as prime minister,” Sa’ar told Channel 12. “But I don’t think important laws should be treated like Plasticine.”

Sa’ar was characteristically calibrated in what he had to say. He made no mention of widely rumored plans by Netanyahu to go beyond amending the current immunity law with a wider legal package that would remove the power of the Supreme Court to overrule Knesset legislation and decisions. He focused only on Netanyahu’s reported intention to amend the process by which MKs are granted immunity — an effort that several MKs from the Likud and its potential partners are publicly championing — and argued persuasively that Netanyahu has no need to do so. Whoever is telling the PM otherwise is giving “not good advice,” Sa’ar said.

I don’t think important laws should be treated like Plasticine

As things stand, noted Sa’ar, a lawyer by training, Netanyahu can already obtain immunity from prosecution by a majority vote in the Knesset House Committee and then a majority vote in the Knesset itself. Moreover, he argued, the terms of the existing law provide a legitimate reason for Netanyahu to seek immunity — under a provision, he said, that relates to preventing harm to the interests of the electorate. Thus, he argued, there was simply no rationale for Netanyahu to amend the law in order to grant automatic immunity for all MKs, as he is reportedly planning to do, or push through alternate legislation to prevent the attorney general from putting him on trial.

The clause in the 2005 immunity law to which Sa’ar was referring indeed spells out (Hebrew link) that any Knesset member can seek immunity from prosecution if “real damage” would otherwise be caused “to the representation of the electorate.” Since Netanyahu has just been re-elected, he might have a highly credible reason to argue that his being put on trial would cause “real damage… to the representation of the electorate.”

Presenting himself as a colleague determined to help rather than harm Netanyahu, Sa’ar stressed that he hoped the prime minister wouldn’t need immunity anyway, because he would be able, during the hearing process to which he is entitled, to persuade Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to abandon the idea of charging him. And even if Netanyahu failed to do so, said Sa’ar, it was beyond dispute that a prime minister has the legal right to remain in office after he is charged.

He also made some savvy political arguments at least partially aimed at his fellow Likud MKs, reminding viewers that their party had assured voters in the run-up to the elections that it had “no intention” to pass a new immunity law, and musing that Likud might not have done as well as it did on April 9, when it won 35 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, had it campaigned on a platform to change the law.

Pre-empting the criticism he knew he would immediately get from the prime minister’s circle, Sa’ar noted pointedly that the position he was setting out — opposing the tailoring of Knesset legislation to Netanyahu’s personal needs — was precisely what “Netanyahu himself was saying a month ago.”

Given that changing the law to grant automatic immunity to all MKs could help several other legislators trying to get off the hook, Sa’ar also emphasized that this kind of “personal legislation” was “likely to harm the public’s faith” in their political leadership. (Shas leader Aryeh Deri, United Torah Judaism head Yaakov Litzman, and Likud MKs Haim Katz and David Bitan are all facing different stages of legal troubles.)

And yet, supportive of Netanyahu though he sounded throughout, logical and persuasive in his legal and political arguments, Sa’ar’s TV appearance was most emphatically a challenge to the legally embattled prime minister, and a potentially potent one at that — an eminently reasonable attempt at political assassination.

As Sa’ar well knows, unless the new coalition declares legislative war on the Supreme Court, radically curbing its powers, the justices might well intervene to overturn a Knesset decision to grant immunity to Netanyahu

By taking a public stance against amending one law, Sa’ar was simultaneously signaling that any effort to legislate Netanyahu’s mooted far-wider constitutional revolution, denying the Supreme Court the right to “override” the legislature and the government, would also face dissent. And as Sa’ar well knows, unless the new coalition does declare legislative war on the Supreme Court, radically curbing its powers, the justices might well intervene to overturn a Knesset decision to grant immunity to Netanyahu. They might well consider that immunity granted by MKs to the prime minister now — under any version of the immunity law — is untenable, and that Netanyahu must be required to answer without delay, rather than after he leaves office, for alleged offenses carried out while he was in power, and related directly to his prime ministerial work.

Michal Shir, former long-time political adviser to Gideon Sa’ar and new Likud MK. (Courtesy)

In breaking ranks, Sa’ar also planted the first seeds of doubt regarding whether Netanyahu will actually be able to muster the parliamentary votes to bend laws to his will. (Netanyahu is in the process of trying to put together a 65-seat coalition.) Sa’ar has several allies in the Likud’s Knesset faction, notably including first-time MK Michal Shir, a close aide to Sa’ar both when he chaired the Likud and when he served as education minister. Senior Likud figures Yuli Edelstein and Gilad Erdan have both previously spoken out against new legislation tailored for Netanyahu’s personal defense needs. Ex-Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, who heads the four-MK Kulanu party and who has publicly wavered on where he stands regarding Netanyahu’s legal embroilments, will have been asking himself, after watching Sa’ar on TV, whether he and his party ought to go along with the prime minister’s personal legislative initiatives. As the first to speak out, Sa’ar may have made it easier for others to tag along.

“I greatly hope” a new immunity law “doesn’t take shape, because it will not be good; it will do harm to the Likud, it will cause unnecessary dispute, and it won’t be efficient for the prime minister,” said Sa’ar, coming across as the very embodiment of wisdom and probity, and offering a high-minded argument that others might be tempted to endorse.

No sooner had he finished talking, than Channel 12 was, as expected, broadcasting bitter responses from unnamed Likud sources. “Sa’ar is being sanctimonious, and again working to undermine Netanyahu,” said one.

But Sa’ar had been adamant that he is “not the only one who is worried” in the Likud by Netanyahu’s planned legislative moves. He was not the only one, he elaborated, who believes “it’s the wrong thing; it’s not Likud-like; it’s not statesmanlike, also not from the prime minister’s own point of view.”

Does that mean his going public will have any kind of domino effect? Sa’ar made plain he’d do his best in that regard. “I’ll do what I can in the public sphere, in the Likud party, and in the Knesset to ensure that [the passage of a new immunity law] not happen,” he promised… sounding nothing at all like a man bidding to unseat the prime minister.

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