In blow to Netanyahu, Knesset lawyer, 65 MKs back swift immunity deliberations

Blue and White representative says he has support from party leaders representing majority of lawmakers after legal adviser says no impediment to debating request immediately

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (R) and Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman speak to reporters after meeting in Ramat Gan on November 14, 2019. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (R) and Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman speak to reporters after meeting in Ramat Gan on November 14, 2019. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Blue and White party said Sunday that it had the support of more than enough lawmakers to convene a committee to discuss Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for immunity, as the Knesset’s legal adviser also gave a green light for the move.

The announcements marked a possible setback for Netanyahu, moving the Knesset one step closer to quickly deliberating and rejecting his request to be shielded from prosecution in three criminal cases that could spell the end of his political career.

Blue and White said it was presenting Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein with letters from factions heads representing 65 MKs calling for the immediate establishment of a committee to weigh immunity for the prime minister.

Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn, who heads the Knesset Arrangements Committee, met with Edelstein early Sunday afternoon to discuss the demand to form the Knesset House Committee in order to deal with the immunity request.

According to the Knesset legal adviser, Netanyahu’s request [Hebrew] must be weighed by the House Committee before it can be voted upon by the whole 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 released Sunday, Knesset adviser Eyal Yinon said there was no legal obstacle stopping the lawmakers from setting up a House Committee to decide on immunity for Netanyahu, assuming there was majority support for such a move.

He also said that the Knesset could not be compelled to set up a committee, despite the charges against the premier and his request for immunity, possibly giving Edelstein room to refuse to allow the process to go forward.

In a statement, Edelstein confirmed he met with Nissenkorn and Yinon. The senior Likud lawmaker said he requested another legal opinion from Yinon outlining his powers on the convening of the Knesset Arrangements Committee.

Netanyahu requested immunity last week, but is reportedly banking on lawmakers being unable to swiftly set up a committee and discuss his request, thus pushing off the process until after the March elections. As Knesset speaker, Edelstein must okay any meeting of Nissenkorn’s arrangements committee, which deals with procedural parliamentary issues such as the makeup of other committees and is needed to create the House Committee.

Blue and White parliament member Avi Nissenkorn attends an emergency conference on disasters at construction sites in Israel, at the Knesset, on May 27, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Since Netanyahu currently doesn’t have a majority of 61 lawmakers to support his immunity request, his Likud party wants the decision on the matter to be delayed until the next Knesset, hoping such a majority could then be found within a more amenable set of lawmakers.

Last week, Blue and White fumed that Edelstein was delaying proceedings to shield Netanyahu, after the speaker refused to consider the request.

Edelstein had said he was abroad until the weekend, and wanted to meet with Yinon before reviewing such a request. He agreed to meet Nissenkorn after Yinon.

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.

Yisrael Beytenu’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.”

Labor-Gesher on Wednesday evening also called for the revival of the non-functional House Committee. 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends an event marking the eighth night of Hanukkah, on December 29, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

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’s request, made last week, essentially sets up the upcoming March 2 election as a referendum on him and his legal troubles. The Likud leader’s allies have presented the police probes and 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.

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