Knesset panel votes to grant immunity to former minister Haim Katz
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Knesset panel votes to grant immunity to former minister Haim Katz

Committee votes 16-10, broadly along party lines, to allow Likud MK to avoid prosecution for fraud and breach of trust; immunity must still be confirmed by Knesset plenary vote

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Likud MK Haim Katz during a Knesset House Committee discussion of his request for parliamentary immunity, February 4, 2020. (Adina Veldman/Knesset)
Likud MK Haim Katz during a Knesset House Committee discussion of his request for parliamentary immunity, February 4, 2020. (Adina Veldman/Knesset)

The Knesset House Committee on Tuesday voted to grant Likud MK Haim Katz parliamentary immunity from a criminal probe into charges of fraud and breach of trust.

The former welfare minister is facing the charges for allegedly advancing a bill on corporate bond repayment pushed by a financial consultant who was also a close friend and financial adviser to Katz himself, and which benefited him financially once it became law. Katz is also accused of concealing those conflicts of interest.

Katz told fellow MKs that “my life has been ruined” by what he said were unfounded allegations against him. “I’m only flesh and blood,” he said, “and I am not a liar.”

Arguing that the indictment amounted to law enforcement attempting to interfere with the inner workings of the Knesset, his attorney Navit Negev appealed to Knesset members in the House Committee meeting on Tuesday to grant their colleague the immunity he requested.

“We claim that the indictment [arguing Katz’s actions amounted to corruption] was in fact based on a different rule from the Knesset rules. This is the basis of the confusion. In fact, this is an interference in the work of the Knesset,” Negev said, insisting that Katz did not violate the Knesset’s own conflict of interest rules.

Lawmakers vote on Likud MK Haim Katz’s request for parliamentary immunity, February 4, 2020. (Adina Veldman/Knesset)

The House Committee voted three separate times on three separate requests filed by Katz for immunity, each on different grounds. One of the requests, in which Katz alleged that prosecutors were acting in “bad faith,” was soundly rejected by his colleagues in a 16-4 vote. But the committee accepted the final request — which argued he had already faced censure by the Knesset Ethics Committee and that no public good was served by his prosecution — and voted to grant immunity by a vote of 16 to 10 in Katz’s favor.

The final vote was broadly along partisan lines — representatives of Likud, Yisrael Beytenu, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina either sided with Katz or abstained; those of Blue and White, Labor-Gesher, Democratic Camp and the Arab Joint List either voted against immunity or abstained.

The immunity request now goes to the Knesset plenary for a final vote by all 120 Knesset members.

Immediately after the vote, Katz, who had to be removed repeatedly from the meeting for interrupting Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit as he lay out the case for indicting the former minister, expressed relief and apologized to his colleagues.

“I apologize that you’ve had to spend so many hours here because of me,” he told the committee. “My apologies. I’ve learned my lesson. Thank you very much.”

Likud MK Haim Katz during a Knesset House Committee discussion of his request for parliamentary immunity, February 4, 2020. (Adina Veldman/Knesset)

The committee vote drew a rebuke from anti-corruption group Movement for Quality Government, which said in a statement that “the Israeli Knesset isn’t meant to be a safe haven for the indicted.” The group said the charges against Katz were “very serious,” and should be examined in a trial.

It promised to appeal the decision to the High Court of Justice.

On Thursday, at the first House Committee debate on Katz’s immunity request, Mandelblit said that by not publicizing his personal ties — including financial ones — to the legislation he was advancing at the behest of his own financial adviser, and which would benefit that adviser’s other clients, Katz had “committed wrongful acts that amount to a criminal offense.”

The indictment centers on allegations that Katz, while serving as chairman of the Knesset Labor and Welfare Committee from 2005 to 2006 and again from 2009 to 2013, advanced Amendment 44 to the Securities Law at businessman Mordechai Ben Ari’s request. The law stipulates that companies must repay bond debt to small bond holders before it repays controlling owners – an attempt to buck the influence of wealthy and powerful investors in order to help protect the interests of small investors. Ben Ari’s business represents groups of such small bond holders in several companies.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a Knesset House Committee debate on Likud MK Haim Katz’s request for parliamentary immunity, February 4, 2020. (Adina Veldman/Knesset)

Mandelblit told MKs last week that Katz earned large sums of money by investing according to Ben Ari’s advice and even through Ben Ari himself. The attorney general argued that that relationship created a significant conflict of interest in Katz’s advancing an amendment directly related to those investments, even if no money changed hands between them directly.

After Mandelblit’s August decision to indict Katz, the then-welfare minister resigned from the government following a practice established in the 1990s with the court-upheld resignations of indicted cabinet members Aryeh Deri and Raphael Pinhasi.

Negev argued on Tuesday that the indictment represents “a lack of understanding or reference to the norms required by Knesset members.

“The rules of conflict [of interest] that apply to Knesset members are completely different from those that apply to [unelected] public servants. The norms that Katz is said to have broken do not exist in reality and have no legal and normative basis,” she said.

Katz has denied wrongdoing, defending his work on Amendment 44 as key to protecting small investors.

According to the 2005 law on parliamentary immunity, there are four “grounds” that MKs can cite in a bid for protection from legal prosecution.

Attorney Nayot Negev represents Likud MK Haim Katz at a meeting of the Knesset House Committee debating Katz’s request for parliamentary immunity, February 4, 2020. (Adina Velman/Knesset)

A parliamentarian can request immunity if: a) the alleged crime was committed in the fulfillment of his or her parliamentary duties; b) the indictment is served in “bad faith”; c) the alleged wrongdoing was committed in the Knesset building and was already dealt with through the Knesset’s own institutions and procedures; d) prosecution would “cause real damage to the actual functioning of the Knesset or any of its committees, or to the representation of the electorate, and failure to conduct such a proceeding — taking into account the severity of the offense, its nature or circumstances — would not cause significant harm to the public interest.”

In Katz’s immunity request, he cited the first reason, claiming that his actions were part of his work as an MK and were carried out in good faith. According to the law, “substantive immunity” — a form of parliamentary immunity that would permanently block an indictment and not just while the accused is a serving MK — can be granted by the Knesset for actions the committee finds were committed in the legitimate fulfillment of parliamentary duties.

Lawmakers on the Knesset House Committee debate Likud MK Haim Katz’s request for parliamentary immunity, February 4, 2020. (Adina Veldman/Knesset)

Speaking on Tuesday after Negev presented her arguments, Mandelblit said that the benefits that accrued to Katz because of the law he was instrumental in passing “are not too far from bribery.”

Mandelblit said that the misdeeds were not just in advancing the legislation amid an undeclared conflict of interest, but included “a variety of deceitful actions and misrepresentations that included deliberate concealment. This is fraud and breach of trust at the highest level.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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