Bill that would protect PM from investigations hits coalition snag

Bill that would protect PM from investigations hits coalition snag

Coalition chair threatens to freeze all government legislation if bill to protect sitting premiers from criminal probes doesn't advance

Raoul Wootliff covers politics, corruption and crime for The Times of Israel.

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

A bill that would give serving prime ministers immunity from criminal prosecution while also placing term limits on their time in office hit a major roadblock Sunday morning ahead of a planned vote on the legislation by a committee of cabinet ministers.

Amid two ongoing criminal investigations into corruption allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the bill is facing opposition from within the coalition, causing a possible crisis ahead of Monday’s opening of the Knesset winter session.

Likud party MK David Amsalem, chairman of the Interior Affairs Committee leads a committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, November 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The legislation, proposed by Likud MK David Amsalem, would amend Israel’s Basic Laws in such a way as to prohibit police from investigating an incumbent premier for fraud, bribery or breach of trust. Under “the French law” — it is named for similar legislation in France — police would be barred from investigating corruption suspicions against a prime minister, though it wouldn’t offer similar protection from suspicions relating to national security, sex crimes, violence or drugs.

France’s president cannot be prosecuted for offenses aside from high treason, though French lawmakers have recently moved to ease impeachment rules as a way of allowing criminal prosecutions to move forward.

The bill was prompted by the police investigations into Netanyahu, who is a suspect in two cases of alleged corruption and has been linked to suspects in a third case. In its current form, however, the bill would likely not help Netanyahu, as it specifies it would not apply to ongoing investigations.

The bill was set to be brought Sunday afternoon before the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, a powerful body that has the power to grant it government backing, and therefore an all-but-assured parliamentary majority.

But even with leaders of the various coalition parties saying they will support the Israeli version of the law, several lawmakers, including Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked who heads the committee, are expressing misgivings about pushing the bill through the legislative process without proper deliberation.

Speaking to The Times of Israel Sunday, one coalition lawmaker who opposes the move but asked to remain unnamed expressed fear that Amsalem planned to add amendments to the bill during the legislative process so that it would apply to Netanyahu’s investigations.

Knesset Member Rachel Azaria at the Finance Committee meeting discussing sports and gambling budgets at the Knesset, on November 30, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Knesset member Rachel Azaria of coalition partner Kulanu said the bill would “damage the principle of the rule of law and put the prime minister above the law.”

“The law gives a message to the public of legitimizing corruption,” Azaria said in a statement Sunday, adding that she would not be able to support it in a Knesset vote.

MK Oren Hazan (Likud) wrote on Twitter Saturday night that the law “smells bad, and rather than hold our noses, we should get rid of it.”

In attempt to quash claims the the bill would put the prime minister above the law, Amsalem added a clause to the bill late last week that would bring it closer in line with the law in France — where presidents can serve a maximum of two five-year terms — by placing term limits on the prime minister. According to the language in that amendment, a prime minister who has served eight consecutive years in office would not be allowed to form a new government.

The clause, however, would allow prime ministers to form a new government — that could potentially last nearly five years — in their seventh year in office, and makes no mention of preventing consecutive terms. And like the limits on police investigations, the law would not apply to the current prime minister.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks during a ceremony for newly appointed judges at the President’s Official Residence in Jerusalem, July 20, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking to Channel 2’s “Meet the Press” on Saturday night, Shaked said her fellow Jewish Home faction members would only support the bill if it included term limits, but possibly throwing cold water on a Sunday ministerial vote, said they would discuss the bill on Monday before moving forward.

In a meeting with Shaked on Sunday, coalition chairman and Netanyahu ally David Bitan reportedly threatened to freeze all government legislation until the bill is passed by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.

Earlier this month, it was reported that police were deepening their investigations into the actions of the prime minister and that he will be summoned soon for questioning in the two investigations against him, cases 1000 and 2000.

Arnon Milchan (center) with Shimon Peres (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu, March 28, 2005. (Flash90)

Case 1000 relates to allegations that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, received illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, most notably hundreds of thousands of shekels’ worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes that would have seen the prime minister hobble a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Investigators are also expected to set a date for Netanyahu to provide testimony as a witness in Case 3000, which involves suspected corruption by several associates of the prime minister in the sale of German submarines to Israel, the report said. Netanyahu is not a suspect in the submarines case.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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