Blue and White may try to oust speaker if he stalls on PM immunity – report

Netanyahu’s request must first by weighed by House Committee but Speaker Edelstein has yet to begin process that would allow the panel to convene

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein gives a press statement in the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein gives a press statement in the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Blue and White party is examining the possibility of moving to replace Likud MK Yuli Edelstein as Knesset speaker, if he refuses to go forward on discussions concerning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for immunity from prosecution, Channel 12 news reported on Thursday.

Netanyahu on Wednesday filed a request with Edelstein for immunity in the three cases against him, defending the decision, which has proved controversial with some voters, as protection from “trumped-up charges.”

The premier has been charged with fraud and breach of trust in all three cases and bribery in one of them.

But opposition parties want to discuss the request immediately, despite the Knesset having disbanded in December, with the hope of the plenum rejecting it, thus allowing the premier’s trial to begin. However, a source close to Netanyahu claimed that Edelstein will prevent a Knesset discussion weighing the request before the March vote at a minimum.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces his intention to seek Knesset immunity from prosecution, in Jerusalem on January 1, 2020. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Though the premier seems unlikely to get a Knesset majority to support an immunity bid, merely asking for it will likely delay any potential trial by months.

Under a 2005 change to the Knesset immunity law, members of the legislature no longer receive automatic immunity from prosecution. They have to request it from the plenum when relevant.

Netanyahu’s request must first by weighed by the Knesset House Committee before it can be voted upon by the plenum. But due to the lack of a functioning legislature amid ongoing political deadlock, and with new elections set, there is currently no working House Committee.

The Knesset will likely only be able to review and decide on Netanyahu’s request after a coalition is formed — if there is one finally — following the March 2 vote.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s chief rivals in the Knesset, Blue and White, are seeking to expedite the process. Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn asked Edelstein to swiftly call a meeting of the Knesset Arrangements Committee, which Nissenkorn heads, to discuss the possibility of forming a House Committee under the special circumstances to discuss Netanyahu’s request.

“We have wanted for a long time now to form a House Committee and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein opposes it,” said Nissenkorn. “When the prime minister asks for immunity we should honor that request and hold a discussion on the matter. The Knesset is not a shelter [from prosecution].”

Blue and White parliament member Avi Nissenkorn attends an emergency conference on disasters at construction sites in Israel, at the Knesset, on May 27, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Blue and White said Nissenkorn had sought to call a meeting of the Arrangements Committee on Thursday to discuss the possibility of forming a House Committee to debate Netanyahu’s request.

But when he made the request for Edelstein to approve it, the speaker responded that he was abroad until the weekend, and wanted to meet with the Knesset’s legal adviser first. The Arrangements Committee, which deals with procedural parliamentary issues such as the makeup of other committees, can only convene with a green light by Edelstein.

Edelstein said that he would meet with Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon early next week and then decide whether the Arrangements Committee should convene.

Blue and White called his response a “shameful attempt to prevent the Knesset from discussing Netanyahu’s immunity request,” in a statement issued Wednesday.

Yinon said that the committee could be formed if a majority of the Knesset supports the move in a vote, but Avigdor Liberman, whose Yisrael Beytenu holds the balance of power in the parliament, has said he will vote against its creation. Blue and White said it is trying to convince him to support it.

In a letter to Yinon, Netanyahu loyalist MK Miki Zohar claimed that to convene a House Committee at this stage would be “unconstitutional” and “in contravention of all democratic principles.”

Likud MK Miki Zohar chairs a House Committee meeting on a bill to dissolve the Knesset and hold fresh elections on May 28, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

While Netanyahu has stated publicly that he is not seeking to avoid trial and that “immunity is always temporary,” his attorneys wrote in their letter to Edelstein that he was asking for functional immunity in one of the three cases against him as well as in certain aspects of another.

Functional immunity protects parliamentarians from prosecution for things they did in fulfilling their parliamentary work, and is permanent, rather than temporary.

Netanyahu on Wednesday claimed that there exists a conspiracy against him, accusing authorities of engaging in “trumped-up charges, selective enforcement, blackmail of state’s witnesses” and more. He asserted that exonerating information was “being held in the shadows under gag orders and attorney general decisions.”

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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