The Blue and White party reportedly asserted Thursday that the White House was trying to help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delay the Knesset from deliberating his request for immunity from graft charges, by inviting him to Washington to discuss the Trump administration’s peace plan.
US Vice President Mike Pence confirmed Thursday that Netanyahu will visit the White House next week. He said that at Netanyahu’s urging, he also invited Blue and White head Benny Gantz, the premier’s top rival in the upcoming elections.
The trip will take place Tuesday, the White House confirmed, the same day the Knesset is set to vote on establishing the committee that will weigh Netanyahu’s request to be protected from corruption charges in three criminal cases.
“When [Knesset Speaker] Yuli Edelstein declared the deliberation will take place Tuesday,” a Blue and White source told the Haaretz daily, “we estimated he did so with the knowledge that Netanyahu and Benny Gantz would be invited to Washington on the same day.”
The source said that at this point, Blue and White had no intention to push off the immunity proceedings.
Netanyahu’s Likud party, on the other hand, was seeking to delay the vote, citing the Trump administration’s reported intention to unveil its peace plan, according to Hebrew media reports. On Thursday, the prime minister said — and Pence confirmed — that he had suggested Gantz join him in Washington.
Likud ministers were considering asking Edelstein to delay convening the plenum that day, the Kan public broadcaster said.
Netanyahu has sought to prevent the forming of a House Committee to weigh his immunity request prior to the March 2 election, as under the makeup of the current Knesset it is all but assured of rejecting it.
Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn, head of the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee, on Tuesday penciled in January 30 at 2:30 p.m. as the start of Netanyahu’s hearings, which are expected to take a week and include six sessions.
The start, however, depends on Tuesday’s scheduled plenum vote to form the House Committee.
Edelstein on Sunday agreed to convene the Knesset plenum next week in order to vote on forming the House Committee, a decision that immediately drew fire from within his party’s ranks. Netanyahu reportedly fumed, with a statement attributed to his associates asserting: “It’s sad to see how Edelstein fell into the trap laid by the left. With his own hands, he is allowing the Knesset to become a political circus during elections by lending a hand to the tricks of the left, which is trying to use the Knesset to neutralize Netanyahu.”
Edelstein was caught in a political vise, between Likud’s anger on the one hand and a threat from Blue and White to oust him from the speakership on the other, if he failed to order the plenum convened. Blue and White is believed to have enough votes to carry out the threat.
Once formed, the House Committee could conceivably debate and potentially vote on Netanyahu’s immunity request in the coming weeks, ahead of election day. Even if it fails to reach a verdict by then, its meetings are likely to keep Netanyahu’s criminal proceedings front and center in the election campaign.
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 it to properly weigh the immunity request.
Netanyahu announced at the start of January that he would ask the Knesset for parliamentary immunity, as he faced a legal deadline to do so, following Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision to charge him in three corruption cases. Mandelblit cannot officially indict Netanyahu until the Knesset votes on his request.
With the House Committee unstaffed because of Israel’s continued political stalemate, it appeared the Knesset would not take up the immunity debate until after the upcoming elections — giving Likud and its allies a chance to win a majority that could secure Netanyahu’s immunity request, or at the very least delaying a trial by months.
But Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon later ruled that Edelstein does not have the right to prevent the Knesset plenum from forming a House Committee, clearing the way for the panel’s establishment.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust in three cases, and bribery in one of them. He denies any wrongdoing, and claims, without evidence, that the charges are part of an attempted “political coup” against him involving the opposition, media, police and state prosecution.