Netanyahu's immunity bid

Justice minister assails Knesset legal chief for ‘serious conflict of interest’

Amir Ohana demands that Eyal Yinon recuse himself from any involvement in PM’s request for parliamentary immunity due to his wife’s role in state prosecution

Raoul Wootliff is the producer and occasional host of the Times of Israel Daily Briefing podcast.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana speaks at the Knesset on September 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Justice Minister Amir Ohana speaks at the Knesset on September 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Justice Minister Amir Ohana called Tuesday on the Knesset’s chief legal adviser to immediately recuse himself from any decisions relating to the formation of a committee to deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s immunity request, accusing Eyal Yinon of a “serious conflict of interest.”

Ohana said that since Yinon’s wife was part of the team of prosecutors who worked on the prime minister’s criminal cases, immunity for which was to be debated by the as yet unformed committee, “it is not possible to accept a situation in which [he] will decide, either indirectly or directly, in the affairs of the prime minister due to the decisions in which his spouse participated.”

On Monday, Yinon denied reports that he had recused himself from dealing with the issue, arguing that his wife’s involvement in the cases did not put him in conflict of interest at this stage, and alleging attempts to “intimidate” him.

A day earlier, he authored a legal opinion saying the interim Knesset could convene the House Committee that would debate the prime minister’s request for immunity. Netanyahu had sought to delay the immunity proceedings until after the March elections, as a majority of lawmakers in the current Knesset oppose his bid.

Hebrew-language media reported earlier Monday that due to Yinon’s wife Amit Merari being involved in formulating the criminal indictments against the premier, she and Yinon both signed a conflict of interest document in 2017 declaring that he would not deal with issues related to cases she has worked on, according to Channel 12.

Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon attends a Knesset committee meeting on June 6, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Yinon, denying the reports that he had recused himself, contended that there had been nothing wrong with his involvement in the recent deliberations on whether the parliament could discuss the premier’s immunity request after it had been dissolved ahead of March elections, since it was a procedural matter and did not deal with the specific case.

Ohana, however, claimed that “this serious conflict of interest cries out to heavens and could result in a criminal offense of breach of trust.”

He said if Yinon did not immediately recuse himself, he would ask Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to order him to do so.

The Blue and White party on Sunday presented Edelstein with what it said was support from 65 MKs to convene a committee to discuss the immunity request, a move okayed by Yinon. Edelstein responded by asking Yinon for more information on whether he had powers to green-light or block the panel from forming, prompting Benny Gantz’s centrist party to say it would seek Edelstein’s ouster if he vetoed the move.

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

According to Yinon, 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 his initial legal opinion released Sunday, Knesset adviser 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. But 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.

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)

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.

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 plenum when relevant.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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