Knesset legal adviser: Netanyahu indictment must wait until immunity decision

Knesset legal adviser: Netanyahu indictment must wait until immunity decision

Potentially delaying full indictment for months, Eyal Yinon rules House Committee cannot be compelled to convene for ruling on immunity, Knesset can’t decide issue without it

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on November 20, 2019 (left), Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit addresses the press in Jerusalem on November 21, 2019 (Gali Tibon, Menahem Kahana / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on November 20, 2019 (left), Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit addresses the press in Jerusalem on November 21, 2019 (Gali Tibon, Menahem Kahana / AFP)

The Knesset’s top legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, ruled on Monday that the currently dormant Knesset House Committee must decide whether to grant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu parliamentary immunity from prosecution over corruption charges, in a decision that could delay the formal indictment of the premier by several months.

The House Committee has been nonfunctional due to an ongoing political deadlock that has lasted nearly a year, and, if the country goes to third elections, would continue well into next year. Netanyahu has not yet requested immunity from prosecution in the trio of corruption cases against him — in which he has been charged with fraud and breach of trust, with bribery in one of the cases — but is widely expected to do so.

Yinon was asked by Blue and White party MK Avi Nissenkorn whether the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee, a temporary parliamentary committee formed after each election in which various parliamentary assignments are divvied up, can consider the immunity request instead of the House Committee. Nissenkorn chairs the Arrangements Committee.

In his legal opinion, Yinon said the Arrangements Committee cannot take on any of the legal powers given to the House Committee, in part because it is by definition a temporary body with a limited mandate.

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

Instead, he said, Netanyahu’s immunity request, if it comes, can only be considered by a fully staffed House Committee, whenever such a committee is formed. And, crucially: Netanyahu’s indictment in all three corruption cases will not be lodged in court until the committee gives its opinion.

Netanyahu has been charged in three corruption cases, but is permitted 30 days to ask the Knesset for parliamentary immunity, a countdown that officially began Monday when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit presented a final version of the charge sheet to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. Yinon’s ruling, however, indicated the process would take far longer.

The House Committee is legally empowered to consider Netanyahu’s immunity request, but the committee currently has no members, as the assignment of committee posts between the parliament’s factions is usually carried out as part of a broader coalition negotiations process. Since no one has yet succeeded in negotiating such a coalition following the April and September elections, the committee, and many other permanent Knesset committees, remains inoperative.

Yinon specifically ruled that the Knesset cannot be compelled to set up a House Committee to decide on immunity for Netanyahu, despite the charges against the premier. On the other hand, he also ruled that if the Knesset wants to establish the committee, there is no legal obstacle preventing lawmakers from doing so.

Basing his decision on the text of the immunity law which states “the Knesset will not make such a decision [concerning immunity] unless according to the proposal of the House Committee following a request brought before the committee,” Yinon said the full Knesset could not take upon itself to hold a vote on immunity without first having the House Committee consider the matter.

And, Yinon said, if the House Committee rules against giving immunity, the decision is final, further underlining that the Knesset cannot act independently. If immunity is accepted by the House Committee and then by the Knesset, however, the attorney general can file indictments again when the next Knesset is formed and the MK involved — in this case, Netanyahu — could again ask for immunity.

The Knesset plenum ahead of the opening of parliament, on September 25, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The process of setting up the committees is a complex political process, all the more so for the House Committee which is the central junction in Knesset life and which the establishment and composition of has significant implications and far-reaching implications on parliamentary life,” Yinon wrote.

However, he noted that as time drags on and the need to deal with the immunity becomes more pressing, a committee can be set up with a Knesset majority vote on establishing a permanent House Committee. “I don’t believe there is a legal obstacle to do so.”

If a committee is set up, he said there is no doubt that it would be required to quickly deal with the immunity requests.

Yinon’s ruling likely means no charges will be formally filed at the Jerusalem District Court until a coalition is formed that staffs all the regular Knesset committees.

If the current Knesset can’t choose a member to form a coalition by December 11, Israel goes to new elections in March, after which a new coalition will have to be negotiated over the ensuing weeks.

Even if the Knesset refuses to grant Netanyahu immunity, he likely just won several months’ freeze on the start of his corruption legal proceedings.

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