Liberman: Netanyahu would form coalition with Hamas if it meant immunity

Yisrael Beytenu head warns Knesset speaker against blocking formation of panel that debates PM’s immunity request, saying move would lead to ‘confrontation’

Yisrael Beytenu chairman MK Avigdor Liberman participates in a conference at the Israeli Institute for Democracy, in Jerusalem, on November 26, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu chairman MK Avigdor Liberman participates in a conference at the Israeli Institute for Democracy, in Jerusalem, on November 26, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a broadside against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman claimed on Saturday the Israeli leader would be willing to build a coalition with the Hamas terror group if it meant he could clinch parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

“The madness today is twofold,” the leader of the secular, right-wing party said during an onstage interview in the city of Netanya. “It is clear that Blue and White is [set on] building a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox and the Joint List, while Netanyahu wants immunity, even at the cost of a coalition with Hamas.”

Notably Blue and White has said, like Liberman, that it seeks a secularist, centrist government.

Commenting on the possibility that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein will prevent the convening of a parliamentary committee tasked with voting on whether to grant lawmakers immunity, Liberman said, “If we are forced to enter a confrontation with him, so be it.”

Responding to recent attacks from Liberman regarding Netanyahu’s immunity efforts, Economy and Industry Minister Eli Cohen (Likud) said Saturday that a vote for Yisrael Beytenu in the upcoming national election, the country’s third in a year, was tantamount to a vote for a fourth consecutive vote.

Economy and Industry Minister Eli Cohen attends a Kulanu faction meeting in the Knesset on December 24, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Liberman campaigned in the previous election on the premise that only a vote for his party could ensure a unity government — a result that he was unable to bring about. Cohen argued that those who wanted a right-wing government should vote for Likud and those who want a left-wing coalition reliant on the majority-Arab Joint List should vote for Blue and White. The economy minister did not offer any other alternatives.

Talks between Blue and White and Likud to form a unity government after the September election failed to produce results, with the former refusing to sit under Netanyahu so long as he is accused of criminal wrongdoing and the latter rejecting demands that Blue and White lead the prospective coalition, or to abandon its right-wing and ultra-Orthodox allies.

The Yisrael Beytenu chairman spoke out against Netanyahu’s decision to seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution in the three criminal cases against him, saying the move “would not be influential at the electoral level, but on the principle level it is paramount.”

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I sincerely hope that my friend Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein will handle the issue in a statesmanlike fashion,” he added.

Edelstein is caught at the heart of a controversy over Netanyahu’s immunity bid, as Knesset parties opposed to Netanyahu seek to immediately debate his immunity request rather than postpone the matter until after the election.

Netanyahu has formally asked for parliamentary immunity from prosecution. But the prime minister and his allies want to prevent the House Committee, the body that would debate his request for immunity, from being formed before the March 2 vote.

Given the composition of the current Knesset, a majority of the likely members of the committee would be expected to vote against granting Netanyahu’s immunity request. Crucially, Yisrael Beytenu has said it would vote against granting Netanyahu immunity.

After the March elections, by contrast, Netanyahu would hope to have won a parliamentary majority and thus to have a better chance of success in his immunity bid. Even if he doesn’t, he would at least delay a potential trial by many months and prevent it from coloring the upcoming campaign.

The centrist Blue and White party is expected to demand on Sunday that Edelstein okay a meeting of the Arrangements Committee, which deals with procedural parliamentary issues and which must convene in turn create a temporary House Committee to debate the immunity request.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (L) and Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon at the Knesset on May 7, 2013. (Flash)

According to a Friday Channel 12 report, Knesset’s legal adviser Eyal Yinon is set to allow the Arrangements Committee to be formed, in a move that would likely doom Netanyahu’s bid to evade prosecution.

Yinon has already ruled that even though Israel is currently governed by a transition government, there is no legal obstacle to the formation of the committee. He is now formulating an opinion on whether Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, has the authority to prevent setting it up.

Meanwhile, a majority of lawmakers are in support of the convening the committee.

Yinon’s office said he would issue the ruling Sunday.

Channel 12 reported that Yinon would rule that the committee can indeed be formed despite Edelstein’s objections, and “Edelstein will adopt [the ruling], either under protest or with some sort of reservation.”

It did not cite any sources.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz (R) speaking at Knesset conference organized by Labor-Gesher MK Revital Swid (C) on ‘protecting the rule of law,’ December 11, 2019. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)

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 the committee to properly weigh his request.

Netanyahu’s allies have also claimed Yinon has a conflict of interest since his wife was a prosecutor who worked on the cases against the premier, and that he should therefore recuse himself from dealing with the matter. Yinon argues that his decision deals with matters of procedure and principle, not with the specific cases against Netanyahu.

If Edelstein refuses to allow the committee to convene, Blue and White is set to seek Edelstein’s ouster — by pushing for the full Knesset plenum to meet and vote in a replacement speaker.

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