Bennett says Hezbollah tensions contributed to Yamina flip-flop on PM’s immunity

Bennett says Hezbollah tensions contributed to Yamina flip-flop on PM’s immunity

In defense of reversal, senior member of right-wing party says, ‘We cannot allow there to be another election in 2020’

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Yamina's Naftali Bennett speaking at the Srugim conference in Jerusalem on September 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yamina's Naftali Bennett speaking at the Srugim conference in Jerusalem on September 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Senior Yamina party member Naftali Bennett said Monday that recent tensions on Israel’s northern border contributed to his party’s flip-flop over granting immunity from prosecution to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing charges in three corruption cases.

Yamina party leader Ayelet Shaked on Sunday morning said her party would consider supporting granting parliamentary immunity for Netanyahu, reversing a position previously stated by the right-wing alliance. Her statement followed that of Bennett, who said in an interview aired Saturday that “something extreme has to happen for us to oppose immunity for Netanyahu.”

Speaking at a conference held by the religious-Zionist news site Srugim in Jerusalem, Bennett, who expressed opposition for immunity for Netanyahu on several occasions earlier this year, said on Monday that the reversal was based on “balancing values,” citing “political instability” as a threat to a country facing regional challenges.

“It’s very simple — we went to repeat elections… and we must do all we can to prevent a third, or worse, even more elections,” the former education minister and ex-head of the New Right party (now merged into Yamina) said, explaining the reversal.

“This isn’t a game,” he added, “Yesterday, there was rocket fire from Hezbollah aimed at killing Israeli soldiers. There are real threats and real tensions to deal with. We are not Luxembourg. So I take stability very seriously — we cannot allow there to be another election in 2020.”

To avoid prosecution in three corruption cases, Netanyahu would need to be granted immunity by a Knesset panel and by the full parliament in a majority vote, and might then need to enact legislation to prevent the Supreme Court from overturning the Knesset decision.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a tour of the Jerusalem Police headquarters at the Russian compound in Jerusalem, October 7, 2015. (GPO)

Shaked said that while she opposes new legislation making it easier to grant immunity to the prime minister, if Netanyahu asks the Knesset’s House Committee for immunity according to the existing law, “we will consider everything and decide according to the benefit of the State of Israel.”

“The law is very clear on indictments against prime ministers,” she said in her Sunday interview. “It enables them to serve until a final verdict. The reason for that is so that the decision of one person, the attorney general, doesn’t cause a regime change. In a request for immunity by the prime minister, leadership stability should also be considered.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit earlier this year announced Netanyahu would be charged, pending a hearing, with fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases, and bribery in one of them. The prime minister denies any wrongdoing.

As Netanyahu’s legal situation has become more precarious, his allies have increasingly talked up legislation that would protect him from prosecution while he remains prime minister.

One initiative, dubbed the “French law,” would state that a sitting prime minister can only be investigated for sex crimes, violence, drug abuse and security-related offenses, or if an investigation could damage national security or the economy.

Last month, a newspaper report claimed that Shaked, the former justice minister, offered to use her purported influence with Mandelblit to ensure the closure of the corruption investigations against Netanyahu.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, left, and then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked at a ceremony in Jerusalem on June 13, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During this lobbying effort, Shaked was alleged to have sent messengers to various figures in Netanyahu’s orbit to offer what the Haaretz daily described as “full support for granting Netanyahu immunity and preventing his indictment.”

Shaked vehemently denied the report, calling it “a low and ugly attempt to slander me. If the statements quoted [in the report] were in fact said by someone, that’s very serious. But they have nothing to do with me and were not said with my knowledge. I’ve never spoken to the attorney general about criminal cases, and even more so when it comes to the Netanyahu cases.”

Following the report, Channel 13 news quoted associates of Mandelblit as saying he had never discussed Netanyahu’s criminal cases with Shaked and that he would oppose efforts to grant the premier immunity.

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