The Knesset legal adviser on Monday denied reports that he had recused himself from dealing with the criminal cases against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arguing that revelations that his wife was part of the team of prosecutors who worked on the cases did not put him in conflict of interest, and alleging attempts to “intimidate” him.
On Sunday, Eyal Yinon 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 that Yinon’s wife Amit Merari, who works for the state prosecution, was 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.
Following the reports, Likud MK Miki Zohar, the faction whip, contacted Yinon’s office urging him to recuse himself.
Multiple news website subsequently reported that Yinon had recused himself but also 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 matter of principle rather than the specific case.
A Knesset spokesperson initially said there had been no official announcement on the matter.
However, it later issued a statement saying that “contrary to the reports, the Knesset legal adviser does not intend to recuse himself from dealing with the procedural matters currently on the table.”
The statement said Yinon “strongly rejects the conflict of interest argument leveled against him,” claiming his current deliberations are on internal procedural matters of the Knesset rather than the immunity request itself.
The spokesperson noted that the conflict of interest argument relating to Yinon’s wife’s work had not been heard when Yinon previously ruled there was no obligation to form a House Committee to discuss an immunity request by Likud MK Haim Katz, who is set to be charged with fraud and breach of trust in two separate cases.
“Raising the claim of conflict of interest only following yesterday’s legal opinion, which evidently is not liked by some of the parties involved, is a cynical and artificial matter aimed at intimidating the Knesset legal adviser,” the statement charged, adding that Yinon was abiding by the provisions of his conflict of interest document.
The Blue and White party on Sunday presented Knesset Speaker Yuli 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.
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.
MK Zohar derided the Knesset legal adviser for his opinion that the panel could convene before the upcoming elections.
“To allow the Knesset to be used as a political card by the left during an election recess is hugely absurd,” Zohar said.
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.
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.
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.
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.