Knesset speaker faces fierce Likud backlash for allowing Netanyahu immunity vote
Edelstein caught between his own party’s ire, the demands of the law and opposition’s threat of ouster; ‘Now we won’t support him for president,’ vows one Likud official
Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.
Pressure mounted Monday on Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein from within his Likud party to reverse his decision a day earlier to convene the Knesset plenum next week in order to vote on forming the committee that will weigh Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for parliamentary immunity.
Edelstein’s decision immediately drew fire from his party’s ranks. Netanyahu reportedly fumed, with a statement attributed to his associates asserting: “It’s sad to see how Edelstein fell into the trap laid by the left. With his own hands he is allowing the Knesset to became a political circus during elections by lending a hand to the tricks of the left, which is trying to use the Knesset to neutralize Netanyahu.”
On Sunday night, one senior Likud official told the Ynet news site that Edelstein’s decision to allow the vote may have cost him the presidency down the line.
“If Edelstein had some dream to be president, he just lost Likud’s votes with this decision. We won’t support him and Likud won’t forgive him,” the unnamed official said.
Another official — none would speak on the record — complained that Edelstein “has sold us out, and for cheap. When it comes from him, that legitimizes Blue and White’s actions. He’s fueling their campaign. He seems to be trying to cozy up to the other parties, like [President Reuven] Rivlin [ahead of his presidential election].”
If Edelstein doesn’t reverse his decision, “that’s the end of him in Likud,” the official said.
Edelstein has reportedly faced a torrent of angry text messages, some of them threatening in tone.
But it’s not clear Edelstein could reverse his decision even if he wanted to. The plenum vote was requested by 25 MKs representing factions that constitute a majority of the Knesset, fulfilling the requirement for convening the plenum contained in the Knesset Law’s Article 9B, which states that a speaker “shall convene the Knesset, outside the Knesset session… upon the demand of 25 Members of Knesset or the Government.”
As he announced his decision Sunday, Edelstein made clear that he was doing so against his better judgment and that he viewed the coming vote on forming the body that will debate Netanyahu’s immunity request as political posturing that degraded the parliament.
He called the demand for an election-time vote on Netanyahu’s immunity request “invalid” and “constituting contempt of the legislature.”
He said the plenum vote will not be held this week as Jerusalem welcomes leaders from around the world to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The earliest day on which the vote can be held will be next Tuesday, since the plenum doesn’t generally meet Sundays and Monday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Edelstein was caught in a political vise, between Likud’s anger on the one hand and a threat from Blue and White to oust him from the speakership if he failed to order the plenum convened. Blue and White is believed to have enough votes to carry out the threat.
Some in Likud nevertheless insisted Edelstein gave in too soon. He could have refused to convene the vote and forced the other side to appeal to the High Court of Justice, where the broader question of the court’s jurisdiction on matters of internal Knesset procedure would have delayed the decision long enough to ensure no House Committee vote on Netanyahu’s immunity could be held before election day on March 2.
If it gets to vote, the House Committee set to be formed by the plenum vote next Tuesday is widely expected to reject Netanyahu’s request for immunity from prosecution in the three criminal cases against him. Netanyahu strongly prefers a delayed vote, so that he could go through the campaign period without an indictment being served, and in the hope that the makeup of the Knesset after March 2 would be more favorable to him and more likely to grant him immunity.
The opposition Blue and White party lauded Edelstein’s decision and criticized the prime minister for seeking to pressure the Knesset speaker.
“Netanyahu is applying all possible pressure to prevent the deliberation on the immunity request, but despite the delay efforts, the immunity debates will start next week, [they] will be conducted in a fair and matter-of-fact manner and conclude before the elections,” the party said in a statement.
“Netanyahu requested a debate on immunity — Netanyahu will get [a debate]. We’ll prevent an extremist immunity coalition from continuing to drag down Israel solely for the personal interests of Netanyahu,” the centrist party’s chairman, Benny Gantz, tweeted.
Members of the Knesset Arrangements Committee voted on January 13 to establish and staff the Knesset House Committee. But 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 the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, have already declared that they support establishing the committee.
Knesset Legal Adviser Eyal Yinon ruled last week that Edelstein does not have the right to prevent the Knesset plenum from forming the House Committee, which is usually not convened during a lame-duck parliament ahead of an election. He pointed to the Knesset Law’s explicit stipulation that 25 MKs can demand a plenum vote.
“Even though I disagree with the position of the Knesset legal adviser, I believe that, in order to maintain trust in the institution of Knesset speaker by all the factions, it is important to accept it,” Edelstein said Sunday.
MK Miki Zohar, who has defended Netanyahu at every step in the battle to avoid a House Committee vote, lashed Edelstein on Kan public radio on Monday.
“He decided that the Knesset legal adviser’s opinion is sacrosanct. That’s a terrible mistake,” Zohar said. “Everyone interprets the law differently.”
A lone Likud voice backed Edelstein’s adherence to the legal opinion, saying the speaker was concerned for the dignity of his office.
“He believes in the office, he understands the rules of the game,” Deputy Defense Minister Avi Dichter said of Edelstein. “There’s a legal opinion, and even if he doesn’t agree with it he adheres to it. The Knesset’s dignity is more important than the ego of any one person, and certainly above the ego of any particular political party.”
Once formed, the House Committee could conceivably debate and potentially vote on Netanyahu’s immunity request in the coming weeks, ahead of election day. Even if it fails to reach a verdict by then, its meetings are likely to keep Netanyahu’s criminal proceedings front and center in the election campaign.
The prime minister and his supporters have argued that the committee should not be formed because the Israeli government is in transition, and also because there is insufficient time before the elections for it to properly weigh the immunity requests.
Netanyahu’s immunity request, and his subsequent efforts to prevent the forming of the House Committee to debate it, were widely perceived as an effort to stall for time ahead of the March elections, because Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit cannot open trial proceedings against him before it is brought to a vote.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust in three cases, and bribery in one of them. He denies any wrongdoing, and claims the charges are part of an attempted “political coup” against him involving the opposition, media, police and state prosecution.