Committee sets January 30 as start for Netanyahu immunity hearings

Blue and White MK who heads Arrangements Committee aims to have 6 sessions in one week, which will be possible if Knesset votes next Tuesday to form House Committee

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to deliver a statement regarding his intention to file a request to the Knesset for immunity from prosecution, in Jerusalem on January 1, 2020. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to deliver a statement regarding his intention to file a request to the Knesset for immunity from prosecution, in Jerusalem on January 1, 2020. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

The Knesset will discuss Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for parliamentary immunity from corruption charges on Thursday next week, the head of a key committee announced Tuesday.

Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn, head of the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee, 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.

That will only happen, however, if lawmakers back the formation of the panel that is authorized to discuss the premier’s request. The scheduled start date depends on a plenum vote set for next Tuesday to set up the panel.

Once it is formed, the Knesset House Committee will also take up Likud MK Haim Katz’s request for immunity from criminal charges. The committee will hold two sessions on Katz’s request — on January 30 and February 4.

File: Haim Katz speaks at the Knesset ent on March 5, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Sunday decided 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 Likud 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 became 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.”

On Sunday night, one senior Likud official told the Ynet news site that Edelstein’s decision to allow the vote may have cost him the presidency down the line.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein gives a press statement in the Knesset, January 12, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“If Edelstein had some dream to be president, he just lost Likud’s votes with this decision. We won’t support him and Likud won’t forgive him,” the unnamed official said.

But it’s not clear Edelstein could reverse his decision even if he wanted to. The plenum vote was requested by 25 MKs representing factions that constitute a majority of the Knesset, fulfilling the requirement for convening the plenum contained in the Knesset Law’s Article 9B, which states that a speaker “shall convene the Knesset, outside the Knesset session… upon the demand of 25 Members of Knesset or the Government.”

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 if he failed to order the plenum convened. Blue and White is believed to have enough votes to carry out the threat.

Members of the Knesset Arrangements Committee voted on January 13 to establish and staff the Knesset House Committee. But a vote on the establishment of the committee must also take place in the Knesset plenary open to all 120 MKs, a majority of whom, crucially including the right-wing secular Yisrael Beytenu party, have already declared that they support establishing the committee.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (L) and Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon at the Knesset on May 7, 2013. (Flash)

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 requests.

Netanyahu’s immunity request, and his subsequent efforts to prevent the forming of the House Committee to debate it, were widely perceived as an effort to stall for time ahead of the March elections, because Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit cannot open trial proceedings against him before it is brought to a vote.

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 the charges are part of an attempted “political coup” against him involving the opposition, media, police and state prosecution.

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