Lapid, Liberman warn Knesset speaker not to block Netanyahu immunity panel

Opposition heavyweights willing to ‘fight’ Edelstein if he holds up creation of committee that would likely reject PM’s bid to avoid prosecution

Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman attends a Tel Aviv conference, December 31, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman attends a Tel Aviv conference, December 31, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Blue and White MK Yair Lapid and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman on Monday warned they are willing to “fight” Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein if he blocks the creation of a panel that would deliberate, and likely reject, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for immunity from prosecution.

Lapid warned of “consequences” if Edelstein uses his parliamentary powers to prevent the House Committee from being formed.

Blue and White officials have previously threatened to unseat Edelstein if he obstructs the immunity proceedings. Netanyahu wants to delay the formation of the House Committee that would consider his request until after the March elections, when his prospects of gaining immunity could be more favorable.

The prime minister currently does not have a parliamentary majority to back his bid to shield himself from prosecution in three corruption cases. The committee is currently unstaffed due to the year-long political stalemate.

Liberman — who has announced he’ll oppose immunity for the Likud leader, along with Blue and White — said he hopes to avoid a clash with Edelstein, but will fight if necessary.

“Netanyahu asked the 22nd Knesset for immunity, therefore this Knesset must address this request,” Liberman said. “The last thing I want is a fight with the speaker, but if there is no choice, we’ll fight the Knesset speaker. I hope it doesn’t come to replacing [him].”

Lapid said, “If the Knesset speaker doesn’t understand that in his role he represents the entire Knesset and not only Netanyahu, there will be consequences. The fact that Edelstein is pulling stunts and tricks in order to not establish the committee, that’s a breach of public trust.”

Blue White MK Yair Lapid at a conference in Herzliya, December 25, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Lapid and Liberman were speaking at a conference hosted by the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper and its Ynet news site.

According to the Knesset’s legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, Netanyahu’s request must be weighed by the House Committee before it can be voted upon by the whole plenum. But 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.

The Blue and White party on Sunday said it would seek the ouster of Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, should he veto the party’s move to discuss Netanyahu’s request for immunity.

Blue and White had presented Edelstein with what it said was support from 65 MKs to convene a committee to discuss the immunity request, but the speaker responded by asking Yinon for more information on whether he had powers to green-light or block the panel from forming.

“Edelstein cannot desecrate the holy of holies of Israeli democracy,” Blue and White said in a statement. “We call on him to allow the formation of the House Committee to discuss Netanyahu’s immunity request. We cannot allow the Knesset to become a refuge for a bribery suspect.

“Edelstein, you were chosen as Knesset speaker, not Netanyahu’s man in the Knesset. You must act accordingly,” the party said.

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, center, during a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset, December 11, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The latest 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 the three criminal cases that could spell the end of his political career.

Edelstein could be suspended or fired by parliamentary majority.

Meanwhile Monday, Yinon denied reports that he had recused himself from dealing with the criminal cases against Netanyahu, arguing that revelations that his wife was part of the team of prosecutors who worked on the cases did not put him in a conflict of interest, and alleging attempts to “intimidate” him.

Edelstein met on Sunday with Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn, who heads the Knesset Arrangements Committee, and Yinon. As Knesset speaker, Edelstein must okay any meeting of Nissenkorn’s committee, which deals with procedural parliamentary issues such as the makeup of other committees and is needed to create the House Committee.

In a legal opinion released Sunday, Knesset adviser Yinon said there was no legal impediment to lawmakers 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference at the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem, January 1, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

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.

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 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.

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