High Court lets Knesset legal adviser release ruling on PM’s immunity panel

High Court lets Knesset legal adviser release ruling on PM’s immunity panel

Parliament’s chief lawyer reportedly set to okay immediate formation of committee to deal with request, dashing Netanyahu’s hope of delaying trial for months

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon at a meeting of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, February 23, 2016.
 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon at a meeting of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, February 23, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice on Sunday said that Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who faces accusations by Likud of a conflict of interest in handling Netanyahu’s corruption cases, can nevertheless release a legal opinion that could allow the Knesset to consider Netanyahu’s immunity request — and likely to reject it.

Earlier Sunday, Likud MK Miki Zohar filed a petition calling on the High Court to rule that Yinon could not deal with the cases due to a “serious conflict of interest” because his wife, Amit Merari, is part of the team of prosecutors who worked on the prime minister’s criminal cases.

“The Knesset attorney is unfortunately in complete violation of the conflict of interest agreement he signed, and in violation of the conflict of interest agreement signed by his spouse, which is in complete contravention of the law, and in a manner that undermines public confidence in the important institution of the Knesset legal adviser,” the petition claimed.

In 2017, Yinon and Merari signed a conflict of interest document declaring that he would not deal with issues related to cases she has worked on. Yinon, however, has argued that his decision over setting up the Knesset committee is not directly related to immunity but rather to parliamentary procedure.

Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Amit, center, arrives at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem for a court hearing, on February 8, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In response, High Court Justice Yitzhak Amit gave Yinon until Wednesday at 4 p.m. to respond to the claims.

But Justice Amit also said Yinon had sent the court a letter announcing he plans to release his decision on Netanyahu’s cases at 4 p.m. today, apparently giving the announcement the go-ahead.

Yinon is set to issue a legal opinion on whether the Knesset’s speaker, Likud’s MK Yuli Edelstein, is allowed by law and parliamentary procedure to prevent the formation of the committee of lawmakers empowered to consider Netanyahu’s immunity request.

If the committee meets, it is expected to decide against granting Netanyahu immunity, opening up the prime minister to formal indictments before the March 2 election.

Netanyahu had hoped to stall the immunity process until after election day. The rival Blue and White party is hoping that the committee will debate and reject Netanyahu’s request within three weeks, with time to spare before the election.

In his letter to the High Court, Yinon said that since he had made it clear as early as Thursday that he planned to announce his decision on Sunday, and since the petition against his doing so does not call for an immediate blocking of his decision until a final High Court ruling is announced, he still planned to release his opinion on Sunday afternoon.

Knesset Speaker Edelstein, who had called a press conference on the subject for 1:15 p.m., announced that he will delay his own comment until 5 p.m., after he has read Yinon’s legal opinion.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein arrive for a joint event of the Knesset and the US Congress on June 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Channel 12 reported that should Yinon rule the Knesset can move to convene the House Committee — the panel that must discuss and vote on MKs’ requests for immunity before a vote in the full parliament — Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz, would seek to do so without delay.

It would then allow several days for the committee to be formed and for Netanyahu’s legal team to prepare, with an eye on beginning deliberations the week of January 19. The committee would also address an unrelated immunity request by Likud MK Haim Katz, who also faces graft charges.

Netanyahu issued a statement on Saturday night, saying of Yinon: He “was caught red-handed in a conflict of interest. Can you believe that? They’ve lost their sense of shame… He and his wife claim they did not discuss my case. Do they think we’re stupid?”

Yinon has already ruled that, even though Israel is currently governed by a transition government, there is no legal obstacle to the formation of the House Committee.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting at the Knesset with parties in his right-wing bloc on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

To form a House Committee, the Knesset must first convene the Arrangements Committee, which deals with procedural parliamentary issues. It, in turn, would create a temporary House Committee to debate the immunity request.

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 the committee to properly weigh his request.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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