Far-right slate to offer PM immunity law in exchange for settlement annexation

URWP’s long list of demands ahead of coalition talks to also include law barring High Court from overriding Knesset legislation, reducing authority of AG and state comptroller

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Israelis visit the northern West Bank settlement of Peduel on April 22, 2019. (Flash90)
Israelis visit the northern West Bank settlement of Peduel on April 22, 2019. (Flash90)

The Union of Right-Wing Parties is demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commit to annexing all Israeli settlements in the West Bank in exchange for the faction sponsoring legislation that would grant the premier immunity from prosecution, a spokesman for a senior party lawmaker confirmed to The Times of Israel on Monday.

The party is expected to officially kick off negotiations with Netanyahu’s Likud party next week, but has begun to publicly press for a long list of demands, ranging from high level ministerial portfolios to legislation that will blunt the power of the Supreme Court to act as a check on the Knesset.

URWP leaders have already publicly revealed some of their stipulations for entering the government over the past nearly two weeks since the April 9 elections.

However, their official demands, passed along in a document to Likud officials and reported in Hebrew-language media Monday, go far beyond those reports, which included only that faction leader Rafi Peretz be named education minister and the slate’s No. 2 Bezalel Smotrich be made justice minister.

Bezalel Smotrich casts his ballot at a voting station in the West Bank settlement of Kedumim on April 9, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

The URWP amalgam is made up of the national religious Jewish Home and National Union parties along with the Otzma Yehudit faction, a radical far-right group led by self-proclaimed disciples of the late American Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned in Israel in the 1980s for racism.

In a move seen as a bone to Netanyahu, Smotrich will put forth during coalition negotiations a bill he proposed during the last Knesset, which would provide automatic immunity to any member of parliament.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promises in a Channel 12 TV interview to extend Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements, April 6, 2019. (Channel 12 news screenshot)

If it is passed, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit then decides to indict Netanyahu for a series of graft probes on which a hearing is expected to be held in the coming months, the premier would be granted immunity unless a majority of the Knesset votes to strip him of that right.

In the weeks leading up to the April 9 election, Netanyahu repeatedly said he would not push such legislation himself, but was more coy when asked about others doing so.

In exchange for the immunity law, URWP is insisting that Netanyahu make good on his campaign pledge to annex all of Israel’s West Bank settlements, which are home to some 400,000 Israeli Jews. Observers say such a move, which would come as the Trump administration prepares to roll out its long awaiting peace plan, would put a nail in the coffin of hopes for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The URWP is also demanding the passage of a High Court override bill that would allow the Knesset, with a majority vote, to re-enact legislation that had been struck down by the top legal body. The legislation, or a version of it, is supported by several of the right-wing factions expected to make up Netanyahu’s coalition and which have seen some of their legislative efforts struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Some of the long list of demands, which also include a third, more minor ministerial portfolio — such as the Jerusalem or Diaspora Affairs Ministry — are widely understood to be a negotiating tactic aimed at putting as much pressure as possible on Netanyahu, who ostensibly will not agree to every one of the far-right slate’s stipulations. However, the URWP is an avowed backer of settlement annexation, and Smotrich was championing the demand for the amended immunity legislation in the previous Knesset and has been adamant that he will get it passed this time.

Among the other wish-list items on URWP’s board is a demand that the government pass an expanded version of the so-called “Norwegian law,” which allows an MK from any party who is appointed to a cabinet post to resign temporarily from the Knesset, thereby permitting the next-in-line person on their party’s list to enter parliament.

The current law only allows a party to utilize the Norwegian law for one of its appointed ministers, but URWP wants to ensure that its slate’s lone Otzma Yehudit representative, Itamar Ben Gvir, gets into the Knesset. At number seven on the slate’s list, the activist-attorney is currently two spots shy from doing so. A successful passage of such a law would lead to both Peretz and Smotrich resigning from the Knesset to focus solely on the work of their respective ministries and in turn allowing Ben Gvir and settler-activist Orit Strock into parliament.

Union of Right Wing Parties candidates (from L-R) Rafi Peretz, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich pose for a photo on April 9, 2019. (Courtesy)

The party will also ask for the establishment of ministerial committee, headed by a URWP member, that will be responsible for legalizing settlement outposts and wildcat homes throughout the West Bank, this in addition to responsibility over the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division. The faction also will seek the abolition of the Civil Administration, the defense ministry body responsible for running much of government bureaucracy for Israeli settlers. Instead, such approvals would be granted by the relevant government offices.

Also on the URWP’s list of demands it the cancellation of the Disengagement Law, which would allow Israelis to return to the four northern West Bank settlements which were evacuated in 2005 at the same time as the unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip.

The right-wing slate is also eyeing more say among Knesset members over the appointment of judges, including through a parliamentary hearing.

It will also seek to bar the attorney general from taking a position against that of the cabinet, and prevent the state comptroller from reporting on the activities of government offices in real-time. Ombudsman Yosef Shapira has published reports over the past several years that have been heavily critical of several ministries funneling of funds toward illegal West Bank outposts.

Blue and White MK Ofer Shelah claimed Monday that the list appeared to have been written by Netanyahu himself. “The vision of the nightmare government is coming true,” he said in a statement. “Netanyahu will give — to Smotrich — and take — immunity for himself.”

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