Tuesday was shaping up to be a dramatic day for Israel with the start of Knesset proceedings on Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for immunity in his corruption probes. Meanwhile, the prime minister himself will be thousands of miles away in Washington, where US President Trump was preparing to release his long-promised peace plan later in the day.
Adding to the tension are fears that Palestinians in the West Bank could hold large-scale protests against the plan, which Ramallah has already rejected, possibly leading to clashes with Israeli forces.
Proceedings at the Knesset were set to begin at 11 a.m. with lawmakers to vote on forming a Knesset House Committee, the parliamentary body that considers immunity requests. That body will then take up the issue, and may issue a decision — almost certainly rejecting Netanyahu’s immunity request — by election day.
But proceedings were not expected to last long as the rightist-religious bloc behind the prime minister — which has fought against holding the vote, hoping to delay the establishment of the committee until after the elections — announced Sunday its members would boycott the plenum on Tuesday in a symbolic move meant to deny the vote public legitimacy.
But the vote is still expected to move ahead, as a majority of 65 lawmakers in the 120-member parliament have already said they will support the formation of a House Committee.
Netanyahu announced at the start of January that he would ask the Knesset for parliamentary immunity, as he faced a legal deadline to do so following Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision to charge him in three corruption cases. Mandelblit cannot officially indict Netanyahu until the Knesset votes on his request.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust in three cases, and bribery in one of them. He denies any wrongdoing, and claims, without evidence, that the charges are part of an attempted left-wing “coup” against him involving the opposition, media, police and state prosecution.
But the bloc of right-wing and religious parties that are backing him in the run-up to election day lacks the 61-vote majority to grant him that immunity — or even to delay a decision until after March 2, which would have allowed him to get through the election unindicted.
The unveiling Tuesday of Trump’s long-awaited peace plan, whose timing was announced last week, has been criticized in Israel as an attempt to rescue Netanyahu from the immunity proceedings.
The plan will be unveiled at 12 p.m. in Washington (7 p.m. in Israel.)
The premier’s main election rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, met Trump on Monday before rushing back to Israel to take part in the Knesset deliberation.
The discussions are “important for the future of our democracy,” Gantz said, using the opportunity to highlight why he believes Netanyahu should not be allowed to be involved in decisions crucial to Israel’s future.
“No one has the right to lead an entire country with such a complicated diplomatic- and security-related situation, while all his activities and thoughts are dedicated to his personal interests. That’s what Netanyahu said about Olmert, and that’s what I say about Netanyahu,” he said.
Gantz was referring to a comment then-opposition leader Netanyahu made more than a decade ago about then-prime minister Ehud Olmert — that a premier “neck-deep in investigations has no moral or public mandate to make fateful decisions for Israel.”
Trump, who met both Netanyahu and Gantz, alluded to the political deadlock in Israel.
“As you know, they’re two good competitors. They’re fighting it out,” Trump said of Netanyahu and Gantz. “This is the third election. We keep waiting and waiting and waiting,” he added, referring to the ongoing political stalemate in Israel. “What kind of system is that? Very strange system you have there. We have been talking about this for many months. So this system has to be looked at.”
Netanyahu is scheduled to meet Trump again at the White House on Tuesday for the unveiling of the administration’s plan. The two leaders will deliver joint remarks for 35 minutes. Later that day, Trump, who is immersed in his own impeachment proceedings, is headed to New Jersey for a campaign rally.
“Peace in the Middle East has been long sought, for many, many years and decades and centuries. This is an opportunity. We’ll see what happens. Whatever it is, it is,” Trump said Monday in the White House Rose Garden, standing next to Netanyahu.
“Tomorrow at 12 o’clock, we’re going to show a plan, it’s been worked on by everybody,” he added. “And we’ll see whether or not it catches hold. If it does, that would be great. And if it doesn’t, we’re going to have to live with that too. But I think that it might have a chance.”
According to the Reuters news agency, citing a US official, Trump will reportedly tell Netanyahu and Gantz that they have until the Knesset elections to work on the administration’s plan, potentially throwing the high-stakes diplomatic gambit into Israel’s domestic political stew.
“You have six weeks to get this [plan] going, if you want it,” the unnamed official claimed Trump would say.
The plan is reportedly very pro-Israel and the Palestinian leadership has already rejected it.
According to unconfirmed reports in Hebrew media, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has also instructed Palestinian security not to stop protesters from confronting Israeli forces in the West Bank as the US releases the plan.
According to the Ynet news site, Abbas said: “We need to enlist all the young people. Stay out on the streets. We’re going to be on emergency footing in the coming days… Ahead of us are difficult days and we will need to bear the consequences of refusing the agreement.”
Abbas has reportedly refused to take phone calls from Trump in the lead-up to the plan’s release.