In blow to Netanyahu, Knesset legal adviser said set to okay immunity debate

Unsourced TV report says Eyal Yinon will permit formation of key House Committee, Knesset Speaker will reluctantly accept decision, and PM’s immunity bid will thus be doomed

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (L) and Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon at the Knesset on May 7, 2013. (Flash)
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (L) and Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon at the Knesset on May 7, 2013. (Flash)

The Knesset’s legal adviser is set to allow a key committee to be formed and to debate and vote on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for parliamentary immunity from prosecution in three graft cases, a TV report claimed. The TV reporter said this decision would likely doom Netanyahu’s bid to secure immunity from prosecution.

Knesset legal adviser Eyal 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, the panel that must discuss and vote on MKs’ requests for immunity before a vote in the full Parliament. Now Yinon is formulating an opinion on whether Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, has the authority to prevent the formation of the House Committee. A majority of lawmakers support setting up the committee to hear Netanyahu’s immunity request.

Yinon’s office said he would issue the ruling Sunday.

Channel 12 political analyst Amnon Abramovitch reported on Friday night that Yinon would rule that the committee can indeed be set up despite Edelstein’s objections, and “Edelstein will adopt [the ruling], either under protest or with some sort of reservation.”

He did not cite any sources.

“If you ask me, the bottom line is that there will be a discussion [in the committee] on immunity. I think Netanyahu can wave farewell to immunity,” Abramovitch  said.

Netanyahu has formally asked for parliamentary immunity from prosecution in the three corruption cases in which he has been charged.

But Netanyahu and his allies want to prevent the House Committee from being formed before the March 2 elections. Given the composition of the current Knesset, a majority of the likely members of the committee would be expected to vote against granting Netanyahu’s immunity request. Crucially, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party has said it would vote against granting Netanyahu immunity. After the March elections, by contrast, Netanyahu would hope to have won a parliamentary majority and thus to have a better chance of success in his immunity bid.

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.

Netanyahu’s allies have claimed Yinon has a conflict of interest since his wife was a prosecutor who worked on the cases against the premier, and that he should therefore recuse himself from dealing with the matter. Yinon argues that his decision deals with matters of procedure and principle, not with the specific cases against Netanyahu.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz (R) and party MKs Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi at a faction meeting in Tel Aviv on January 8, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The centrist Blue and White party, Likud’s chief rival in the elections, is expected to demand on Sunday that Edelstein okay a meeting of the Arrangements Committee, which deals with procedural parliamentary issues and which must convene in turn create a temporary House Committee.

The Knesset speaker’s approval is needed for the Arrangements Committee to meet. Edelstein’s office said that shortly after he receives Yinon’s opinion on Sunday, he will publish his decision on the matter.

If Edelstein refuses to allow the committee to convene, Blue and White is set to seek Edelstein’s ouster — by pushing for the full Knesset plenum to meet and vote in a replacement speaker.

Earlier this week, Yinon authored a legal opinion saying the interim Knesset could indeed convene a House Committee that would debate the prime minister’s request for immunity.

Netanyahu requested immunity from prosecution in three criminal cases last week, a month after the charges were issued against him, and hours before the deadline for him to issue such a request expired. But he had anticipated that lawmakers would be unable to swiftly set up the House Committee to discuss his request, thus pushing off the process until after the March vote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein arrive for a joint event of the Knesset and the US Congress, celebrating 50 years since Jerusalem’s reunification, at the Chagall state hall in the Knesset, on June 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

On Sunday, Edelstein asked Yinon for clarification regarding his powers, drawing the Knesset adviser into the case.

In the days since, Likud lawmakers have demanded Yinon recuse himself from any decisions relating to the formation of the House Committee, and withdraw an earlier ruling okaying it.

Yinon rejected the demands and said there was no basis to the claim he acted inappropriately.

Likud on Thursday again went after Yinon, saying he should recuse himself due to his inclusion in a list of state witnesses in the cases published by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in December.

Mandelblit later issued a statement appearing to dismiss the Likud criticism, saying Yinon’s testimony was not “essential” to the probes and related to a conversation he’d had with figures in one of the cases on matters of Knesset regulations.

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.

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 House Committee and then the full plenum.

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