Knesset lawyer tells court no conflict of interest on forming PM immunity panel

Knesset lawyer tells court no conflict of interest on forming PM immunity panel

Responding to High Court petition, Eyal Yinon says his legal opinion allowing Knesset Committee to weigh Netanyahu request doesn’t pertain to the actual deliberations

Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon at a meeting of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, February 23, 2016.
 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon at a meeting of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, February 23, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset’s legal adviser on Wednesday called for the High Court of Justice to throw out a petition seeking to overrule his decision allowing the formation of a panel that will deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for parliamentary immunity from corruption charges.

Likud MK Miki Zohar’s petition, filed Sunday, says Eyal Yinon cannot deal with the cases due to a “serious conflict of interest” stemming from the fact that his wife, Amit Merari, is part of the team of prosecutors who worked on the prime minister’s criminal cases.

The petition was filed shortly before Yinon issued a legal opinion that would allow a Knesset committee to debate — and, with the current balance of power in parliament, likely reject — Netanyahu’s immunity request before the March 2 elections.

In his response to the court, Yinon acknowledged the conflict of interest, but said his legal opinion had no bearing on the actual cases against Netanyahu or the expected immunity proceedings in the Knesset.

“The legal opinion deals with clear inter-parliamentary matters that are prior to the deliberations on the immunity request themselves and which the attorney general has no position on,” Yinon said in a statement from the Knesset.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) with MK Miki Zohar during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, December 7, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He said Likud lawmakers’ calls for him to recuse himself due to a conflict of interest only arose after he issued the opinion, “whose conclusion was not to the satisfaction of the petitioners,” even though they were previously aware of his wife’s involvement in the Netanyahu probes and the conflict of interests document he had signed.

“This fact indicates that the only purpose of the claim is to diminish the legitimacy of the office of the Knesset legal adviser and deter him personally from fulfilling his job to the best of his judgement and without fear,” Yinon said.

He also reiterated that to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest he would not take part in the immunity hearings themselves, “including on procedural questions that will come up during the deliberations.”

Yinon ruled Sunday that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein does not have the right to prevent the Knesset plenum from forming a House Committee, which is usually not convened in a transitional government.

Members of the Knesset Arrangements Committee voted Monday 16 to 5 in favor of establishing and staffing the key committee, which weighs immunity requests. A vote on the establishment of the committee must also take place in the Knesset plenary open to all 120 MKs, a majority of whom, crucially including Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, have already declared that they support establishing the committee.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein seen during a vote on a bill to dissolve the parliament, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on December 11, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Edelstein, a member of Likud, is now facing pressure from Netanyahu and his political allies him to block a plenary vote on forming the House Committee, while factions representing a majority of Knesset members are calling on him to allow a plenary session to take place as soon as possible.

Once formed, the House Committee is likely to debate and potentially vote on Netanyahu’s immunity request in the coming weeks, perhaps even days, long before election day on March 2.

The prime minister and his supporters have argued that the House 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 the immunity requests.

So long as Netanyahu’s immunity request is not brought to a vote, the attorney general cannot open trial proceedings against him.

According to the proposal passed by the Arrangements Committee, the House Committee will have 30 members: eight seats each for Blue and White and Likud; three seats for the Joint List; two apiece for Shas, Labor-Gesher, Yisrael Beytenu and United Torah Judaism; and one seat each for the Democratic Camp, the Jewish Home and the New Right.

That leaves the prime minister with 14 out of 30 votes.

Netanyahu, in November, became the first sitting prime minister with charges against him when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced he would indict the prime minister for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu denies the charges and claims he is the victim of an attempted “political coup” involving the opposition, media, police and state prosecutors.

Netanyahu announced on January 1 that he would seek Knesset immunity from prosecution, submitting the request hours before the legal deadline. But he had anticipated the matter would only be debated in the next Knesset term, after the March elections, by which time he would hope to have won a parliamentary majority.

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