Liberman opposes forming Knesset committee just to reject Netanyahu immunity

Yisrael Beytenu leader puts kibosh on setting up forum days before parliament likely to dissolve amid report that Blue and White seeking to quickly quash PM’s bid to avoid charges

Head of the Israel Beyteinu party Avigdor Liberman speaks with the media during a faction meeting in the Knesset on November 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Head of the Israel Beyteinu party Avigdor Liberman speaks with the media during a faction meeting in the Knesset on November 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman said Tuesday that he opposes convening a Knesset committee for the sole purpose of blocking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from being able to claim immunity in the criminal cases against him.

The statement came a day after Liberman indicated he would not back Netanyahu should the prime minister seek parliamentary immunity, seemingly dashing the premier’s hopes of garnering enough support to avoid criminal prosecution.

A report Monday indicated the Blue and White party may seek to quickly convene the Knesset House Committee to discuss and deny an expected request from Netanyahu for immunity, even as the lame duck-like parliament limps toward dissolving itself and calling new elections in just over two weeks.

“We will strongly oppose this,” Liberman told the Kan public broadcast radio. “As we have said, we want elections without any tricks.”

“To set up the committee 15 days before the dissolving [of parliament], it is clear that it will be a personal committee that will deal with only one subject or one person,” said Liberman.

Noting that in the history of the state a Knesset committee was never formed by a transition government, Liberman said “We will need to wait until there is a new government, [then] the House Committee will be set up and debate it.”

Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv. November 21, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Netanyahu has not yet announced if he want immunity, but is widely assumed to be seeking it. A House Committee can only discuss the immunity bid once it is asked for, and Netanyahu can technically wait until late December to declare if he will seek it, long after the Knesset’s expected expiration date December 11, unless MKs task a lawmaker with trying to create a government before then.

Without majority support in both the nascent Knesset House Committee and the 120-seat plenum, Netanyahu cannot be granted immunity from prosecution. However, if he asks for immunity, charges can only be filed in court after the committee rejects the bid, meaning the process could drag on for several months until after a government is formed.

According to Channel 13, the Blue and White party, chief rivals to Netanyahu’s Likud party, is seeking to set up the committee — just so that it can reject a request for immunity should the prime minister ask for it. According to the unsourced report, if the committee is established it will likely have a majority of members who are in favor of rejecting a Netanyahu request for immunity.

Committees like the House Committee are generally only formed after coalition agreements are reached, as the deals usually involve how to divide up committee assignments. It was not immediately clear how Blue and White could convene the House Committee in the absence of any coalition agreement.

A political deadlock in Israel has seen the country go for nearly a year without an elected government, despite two rounds of elections. A key hurdle in coalition negotiations was Liberman’s demand that a unity government be formed between Netanyahu’s Likud, and the Blue and White party.

On Thursday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a Netanyahu appointee, announced he would charge the prime minister with bribery, breach of trust and fraud in three cases against him. The announcement marked the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister faces a criminal indictment.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit holds a press conference at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem announcing his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, November 21, 2019. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)

On Monday Liberman declared at his faction meeting in the Knesset that he would not vote in favor of granting Netanyahu immunity. Without the support of Liberman’s eight-strong Yisrael Beytenu party, Netanyahu would be unlikely to gain the necessary backing from the current Knesset for parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Speaking before Liberman at the opening of his own party’s faction meeting, Labor-Gesher head MK Amir Peretz said he had asked the Knesset chief legal adviser to instruct Speaker Yuli Edelstein not to delay in forming the House Committee so that an immunity request, if made, can be debated.

Without this, “the stain of this indictment will remain in the Knesset for many more months,” Peretz warned.

With the Knesset set to dissolve itself unless a solution to the current political jam is found, it could take months until Mandelblit is able to officially indict the premier.

After both Netanyahu and Gantz failed to form a coalition following the September 17 election, the country entered a never-before-implemented 21-day grace period in which a sitting MK who can gather together a 61-seat majority in the Knesset will get a chance to cobble together a coalition and become prime minister.

If no MK manages to get 61 votes by the end of the 21-day period, which concludes at midnight on December 11, the country will go to an unprecedented third election in a row. Netanyahu also failed to form a government after the April 9 race.

Netanyahu on Thursday slammed the announced indictments, vowed to stay on and fight what he called “tainted” and prejudiced investigations, and accused police investigators and prosecutors of plotting an “attempted coup” to bring him down.

Mandelblit on Monday ruled that Netanyahu can remain as caretaker prime minister despite the charges against him, but did not say if he can be tasked with forming a new government after elections.

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