Firebrand MK pushes immunity law to protect Netanyahu, shore up right-wing vote
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Firebrand MK pushes immunity law to protect Netanyahu, shore up right-wing vote

Bezalel Smotrich defends bill as ‘constitutional and democratic,’ says it will allow another Netanyahu-led government to last 4 years

National Union MK Bezalel Smotrich, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
National Union MK Bezalel Smotrich, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A far-right lawmaker said he will push to restore legislation automatically granting Knesset members parliamentary immunity following upcoming national elections, in a bid to shield Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from corruption charges.

Speaking Thursday at a conference hosted by the Haaretz daily, National Union MK Bezalel Smotrich said such a move would give right-wing voters confidence ahead of the April 9 vote that a Netanyahu-led government would not soon collapse if the premier is indicted.

“Among right-wing voters today there is a lack of confidence because they’re worried about voting for a government that may only last a few months. I want to convey to right-wing voters that there will be a right-wing government that will last for four years,” he was quoted saying by the newspaper.

Attempting to preempt criticism that granting lawmakers immunity would harm the rule of law, Smotrich noted his proposal was Israeli law until 2005.

Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks during a vote on the Regulation Bill in the Knesset on December 7, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“What was constitutional and democratic from the moment the law was legislated and until 2005 can again be constitutional and democratic,” he said.

“Another interest is that after the nation chooses someone to lead it, there needs to be someone free to manage the affairs of the state effectively and not spend half of his time defending himself,” added the National Union MK.

National Union is a member of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, which also includes Jewish Home and the extremist Otzma Yehudit faction.

Smotrich’s proposal was included in a bill submitted earlier this month. It aims to alter parliamentary immunity laws so that indictments can only be filed against lawmakers after the Knesset has given approval. It would revert to a system that was overhauled 12 years ago amid criticism that it protected corrupt and criminal MKs from prosecution.

The bill would reverse the current practice: whereas now, MKs must vote in favor of giving a colleague immunity against a coming indictment, under Smotrich’s proposal they would have the power to block an indictment by refusing to approve the removal of MKs’ immunity.

Currently, the attorney general can file an indictment against any Knesset member, minister or the prime minister, and only afterward ask the Knesset to remove the lawmaker’s immunity. The MK then has 30 days to ask the House Committee to decide whether he is entitled to maintain immunity against the charges laid out in the indictment. If the committee rules against his request, the Knesset plenum can vote to strip his immunity, allowing the MK stand trial.

The earlier version of the law, which Smotrich is aiming to revert to, required votes in both the House Committee and the plenum before the attorney can even file the charges.

That version of the law was amended in 2005 to remove the committee approval requirement following a number of attempts by MKs to hold off or prevent prosecution.

In an interview last week, Netanyahu said he was not seeking legislation that would grant him immunity from graft charges, but did not shut the door on the possibility.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the David’s Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, on March 20, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Last month, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing, on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three cases. The prime minister denies all the allegations.

Speculation has swirled that Netanyahu may be planning to condition entry to the post-election coalition he hopes to form on support for a so-called “French law,” which would shelter him from prosecution as long as he remains in office.

While a sitting Israeli prime minister has never been this close to indictment before, Netanyahu is not obligated to resign at this stage. The planned indictment is still subject to a hearing, during which Netanyahu can plead his case before formal charges are filed.

Netanyahu may not need new legislation to protect himself. According to an existing law, Knesset members can be granted immunity if a majority of lawmakers are convinced the defendant has been treated unfairly and the charges are based on discrimination or a bad-faith effort.

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