Israel’s two large political parties were girding for a fight Saturday night as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents set their sights on quickly blocking his bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution in the three criminal cases against him.
The Knesset’s legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, is set to issue a ruling Sunday that could open the possibility of the legislature immediately moving to review the prime minister’s immunity request in his three criminal cases — and likely rejecting it.
According to reports on Channel 12, Yinon is expected to pave the way for the Knesset House Committee to be formed and to begin discussing the immunity request, despite the objections of Netanyahu, his Likud party, and the Knesset Speaker, Likud MK Yuli Edelstein.
Blue and White is hoping that the committee will debate and reject Netanyahu’s request within three weeks, with time to spare before the March 2 general elections. Netanyahu had been hoping that his request would not be discussed until after the elections, when he would hope to have a parliamentary majority.
The TV network reported that should Yinon rule the Knesset can move to convene the House Committee — the panel that must discuss and vote on MKs’ requests for immunity before a vote in the full parliament — Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz, would seek to do so without delay.
It would then allow several days for the committee to be formed and for Netanyahu’s legal team to prepare, with an eye on beginning deliberations in the week of January 19. The committee would also include an unrelated immunity request by Likud MK Haim Katz, who also faces graft charges.
Blue and White party hopes to complete discussions and vote on the requests by month’s end, the TV report said. It anticipates that Netanyahu would be granted about five days to set out his case, while the prime minister is expected to demand at least 10 days.
Channel 12 also reported that if Likud fails in its attempts to thwart this process, it would try to use the deliberations to at least score some political points, such as accusing Blue and White of focusing on an anti-Netanyahu agenda at the expense of Israel’s wider national interests.
Netanyahu issued a statement in that spirit late Saturday, saying: “Since Blue and White have nothing to offer in the face of the wonderful decade I have brought to Israelis… they will continue up until the election with their tired leftist incitement campaign of ‘Anything but Bibi.’ They can continue concerning themselves with nonsense and I’ll continue to work for Israel.”
Likud could also appeal to the High Court of Justice against the validity of forming the committee prior to the upcoming election.
Netanyahu loyalist and Likud faction chairman MK Miki Zohar has said he will seek to slow down the process in the Knesset through relentless appeals to the top court, Channel 13 news reported on Saturday night.
Yinon has already ruled that, even though Israel is currently governed by a transition government, there is no legal obstacle to the formation of House Committee.
Yinon is currently formulating an opinion on whether Knesset Speaker Edelstein has the authority to prevent the formation of the House Committee. A majority of lawmakers support setting up the committee to hear Netanyahu’s immunity request.
Yinon’s office said he would issue the ruling Sunday.
Channel 12 political analyst Amnon Abramovitch reported on Friday night that Yinon would rule that the committee can indeed be set up despite Edelstein’s objections, and that “Edelstein will adopt [the ruling], either under protest or with some sort of reservation.”
In an interview with Channel 12 on Saturday, Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman warned: “We’ll form the House Committee this week, with [Edelstein] or without him.”
Liberman added: “If we are forced to enter a confrontation with him, so be it.”
Blue and White has threatened to seek to replace Edelstein as speaker if he refuses to allow the immunity deliberations to move forward.
Netanyahu has formally asked for parliamentary immunity from prosecution in the three corruption cases in which he has been charged. But he had anticipated that lawmakers would be unable to swiftly set up the House Committee to discuss his request, thus pushing off the process until after the March vote.
Given the composition of the current Knesset, a majority of the likely members of the committee would be expected to vote against granting Netanyahu’s immunity request. Liberman’s party has said it would vote against it.
After the March elections, by contrast, Netanyahu would hope to have won a parliamentary majority and thus to have a better chance of success in his immunity bid. Even if he doesn’t, he would at least delay a potential trial by many months and prevent it from coloring the upcoming campaign.
To form a House Committee, the Knesset must first convene the Arrangements Committee, which deals with procedural parliamentary issues. It, in turn, would create a temporary House Committee to debate the immunity request.
The prime minister and his supporters have argued that the committee should not be formed because the Israeli government is in transition, and also because there is insufficient time before the elections for the committee to properly weigh his request.
Netanyahu’s allies have also claimed Yinon has a conflict of interest since his wife was a prosecutor who worked on the cases against the premier, and that he should therefore recuse himself from dealing with the matter. Yinon argues that his decision deals with matters of procedure and principle, not with the specific cases against Netanyahu.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit had also said in a statement that he does not view Yinon as being in a conflict of interest.
On Saturday, Netanyahu said of Yinon: He “was caught red-handed in a conflict of interest. Can you believe that? They’ve lost their sense of shame… He and his wife claim they did not discuss my case. Do they think we’re stupid?”