Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein will prevent a Knesset discussion weighing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for immunity from prosecution in three corruption cases, meaning an indictment against the premier will be delayed until after the March elections at minimum, a source close to Netanyahu said Thursday.
Since Netanyahu currently doesn’t have a majority of 61 lawmakers to support his immunity request, Likud wants the decision on the matter to be delayed until the next Knesset, hoping such a majority could then be found.
According to the Knesset legal adviser, Netanyahu’s request [Hebrew] must be weighed by the Knesset House Committee before it can be voted upon by the plenum. Due to the lack of a functioning legislature amid a year-long ongoing political deadlock, and with new elections set for March 2, there is currently no functioning House Committee to consider the request.
In a legal opinion last month, Knesset adviser Eyal Yinon specifically ruled that the Knesset cannot be compelled to set up a House Committee to decide on immunity for Netanyahu, despite the charges against the premier. On the other hand, he also ruled that if the Knesset wants to establish the committee, there is no legal obstacle preventing lawmakers from doing so. Yinon said the committee could be formed if the majority of the Knesset supports the move in a vote.
On Wednesday, the centrist Blue and White party — the main rivals of Netanyahu’s Likud — fumed that Edelstein was delaying proceedings to shield Netanyahu, after he refused to consider a request by Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn to call an immediate meeting of the Knesset Arrangements Committee, which Nissenkorn heads, to discuss the possibility of forming a House Committee to discuss a request by Netanyahu.
Edelstein had said he was abroad until the weekend, and wanted to meet with the Knesset’s legal adviser before reviewing such a request. He has confirmed a meeting has been scheduled with Nissenkorn for Sunday afternoon. 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.
“There are no, and there will be no Knesset committees during the hiatus,” a Netanyahu associate on Thursday told Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site.
“Nothing like that has happened in 70 years. Edelstein won’t lend a hand to that, it’s absurd,” the associate said on condition of anonymity, shortly before the premier boarded a plane to Greece.
The associate dismissed a High Court petition filed Wednesday demanding that Edelstein be compelled to form a House Committee, saying: “We aren’t afraid of the High Court. It won’t intervene in the Knesset’s work.”
Earlier, the Kan public broadcaster similarly quoted senior Likud officials saying that Edelstein had in fact already decided he will use his powers to either veto the formation of a House Committee, or allow it to be formed but prevent it from convening to discuss Netanyahu’s immunity request. Both steps require an approval from Edelstein.
Responding to the report, Edelstein’s office said he would make up his mind after meeting the Knesset legal adviser early next week. However, the response included remarks that heavily indicated that he had already made up his mind.
“Bullying will not work. The Knesset will not be a platform for the election campaign of Blue and White or any other party,” the office said in response to Blue and White accusations that Edelstein was dragging his feet on the matter and trying to shield his party leader from criminal charges.
“Blue and White has been heading the Arrangements Committee for two months and hasn’t done anything to form permanent Knesset committees. The public understands that there are only election considerations behind MK Nissenkorn’s insistence on blowing things up,” Edelstein’s office said.
Likud faction chairman MK Miki Zohar expressed similar sentiment, defending Edelstein and hitting back at Blue and White.
“Of course Blue and White won’t hesitate in trying to hurt Yuli Edelstein since he is steadfastly withstanding their insolent demand,” Zohar told the Walla news website. “I am pretty sure they won’t manage to break him.
“Blue and White’s hatred of Netanyahu is blinding them,” he added. “This Knesset has dissolved and lost the public’s trust, and all they want is to make an opportunistic, unconstitutional move to politically assassinate Netanyahu. Simply shameful.”
Nissenkorn, meanwhile, claimed in an interview with Kan public radio that he had long sought to form a House Committee but Edelstein has objected.
“When the prime minister requests immunity his request should be honored and the matter should be discussed,” he said. “The Knesset is not a shelter [from prosecution].”
Avigdor Liberman, whose right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party currently holds the balance of power should an immunity vote be held, has aligned with Blue and White on the matter and vowed Wednesday to block the protection for the premier.
The party’s MK Eli Avidar on Thursday joined the pressure campaign on Edelstein in an interview with Army Radio.
“If Edelstein plays into Netanyahu’s politicking, he will enter the history books as the Knesset speaker who acted against the most fundamental principles of democracy. We were the first to say that Netanyahu is simply seeking an immunity government. What will the next step be? Will he ask to run the country from Namibia, because it doesn’t have an extradition agreement? This is unbelievable.”
Blue and White and Labor-Gesher on Wednesday evening also called for the revival of the non-functional panel. Together with the Joint List and Democratic Camp, whose leaders have expressed support in the past for ousting Netanyahu, they appear to have the majority of lawmakers in the parliament to vote to revive the House Committee — and then shoot down Netanyahu’s bid.
Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in three cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He denies wrongdoing and has accused police and state prosecutors of an “attempted coup” against him.
The indictments by the attorney general in November have been submitted to the Knesset speaker to grant Netanyahu a window to apply for parliamentary backing. The criminal charges will not be lodged in court until the prime minister waives his immunity request or after it is rejected, potentially holding it up for months.
Under a 2005 change to the Knesset immunity law, members of the legislature no longer receive automatic immunity from prosecution but must request it from the plenum when relevant. Netanyahu was apparently planning to base his petition on a clause in the immunity law that allows an MK to ask for protection from prosecution under the claim that an indictment has been filed in bad faith or while discriminating against the defendant.
The ask essentially sets up the upcoming March 2 election as a referendum on Netanyahu and his legal troubles. The Likud leader’s allies have presented the judicial proceedings as an undemocratic attempt to remove him from power and have begun campaigning on the idea of voting Likud as a way of protecting the prime minister from prosecution.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.