In blow to Netanyahu, Knesset adviser rules immunity debate can go ahead
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High Court turns back Likud petition to block legal opinion

In blow to Netanyahu, Knesset adviser rules immunity debate can go ahead

Move paves way for committee that will likely reject PM’s bid to evade prosecution; decision overrules Speaker Edelstein, who criticizes, but won’t challenge it

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting at the Knesset with parties in his right-wing bloc on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting at the Knesset with parties in his right-wing bloc on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The High Court on Sunday afternoon rejected a petition by the Likud party seeking an injunction against the Knesset legal adviser, allowing Eyal Yinon to release a ruling that the Knesset cannot block the formation of a committee to deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for immunity from prosecution.

The ruling allows the parliament to consider — and, with the current balance of power, almost certainly rejectNetanyahu’s request to receive immunity from the indictment he faces in the three criminal cases against him.

The crux of Yinon’s ruling is that Speaker Yuli Edelstein, of Likud, does not have the right to prevent the Knesset plenum from forming a House Committee, the body that would consider Netanyahu’s request for immunity — and that is usually not convened in a transitional government.

Responding to the decision, Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, said he had instructed his faction chairman, MK Avi Nissenkorn, “to convene the Arrangements Committee as soon as possible in order to establish the Knesset committee to discuss Netanyahu’s immunity.

“Netanyahu asked for it, and Netanyahu will get it,” he said.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein gives a press statement in the Knesset, January 12, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Edelstein said he disagreed with Yinon’s legal opinion but would abide by it.

“Convening a Knesset House Committee now would be a terrible mistake,” he said in a press conference shortly after Yinon announced his decision. “We can’t let such an important process, a kind of judicial process, to be undertaken like this. We can’t let the House Committee turn into a jungle that shames the parliament. I can’t promise a fair process. Irrespective of the identity of the person asking for immunity, he deserves a fair process. The Knesset deserves a fair process. We citizens deserve a fair process.”

He added, “I disagree with [Yinon’s] decision,” while indicating that he did not intend to stand in its way. “As far as it concerns me, I don’t intend to help the tainted process that begins today.”

Edelstein also castigated political opponents who, he said, had issued threats “that sounded like they came from a Mafia movie” to oust him as speaker if he sought to block the immunity process — an apparent reference to the Blue and White party.

Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon attends a Knesset committee meeting on June 6, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Earlier Sunday, Likud MK Miki Zohar filed a last-ditch petition calling on the High Court to rule that Yinon could not deal with the cases due to a “serious conflict of interest” because his wife, Amit Merari, is part of the team of prosecutors who worked on the prime minister’s criminal cases.

“The Knesset attorney is unfortunately in complete violation of the conflict of interest agreement he signed, and in violation of the conflict of interest agreement signed by his spouse, which is in complete contravention of the law, in a manner that undermines public confidence in the important institution of the Knesset legal adviser,” the petition claimed.

In 2017, Yinon and Merari signed a conflict of interest document declaring that he would not deal with issues related to cases she has worked on. Yinon has argued that his decision over setting up the Knesset committee to deliberate Netanyahu’s immunity request is not directly related to immunity but rather to parliamentary procedure.

In a second petition, Likud said that Yinon should have to wait until the court rules on his alleged conflict on interest before issuing a ruling himself on the formation of the committee. It also claimed that Yinon’s “lack of restraint” in seeking to release his ruling as soon as possible “increases the fear of conflict of interest, and severely impairs public confidence in the Knesset and these quasi-judicial proceedings.”

In response to the Likud petition, High Court Justice Yitzhak Amit gave Yinon until Wednesday at 4 p.m. to respond to the claims. But Amit also said Yinon had sent the court a letter announcing he plans to release his decision on Netanyahu’s cases at 4 p.m., apparently giving the announcement the go-ahead.

If the Knesset committee meets, it is expected to decide against granting Netanyahu immunity, opening up the prime minister to a formal indictment before the March 2 election.

Netanyahu had hoped to stall the immunity process until after election day. The rival Blue and White party is hoping that the committee will debate and reject Netanyahu’s request within three weeks, with time to spare before the election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein arrive for a joint event of the Knesset and the US Congress on June 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Now that Blue and White has sought to convene a committee to deliberate Netanyahu’s request, it should take several days for the committee to be formed and for Netanyahu’s legal team to prepare, with an eye on beginning deliberations the week of January 19. The committee would also address an unrelated immunity request by Likud MK Haim Katz, who also faces graft charges.

Netanyahu issued a statement on Saturday night saying of Yinon: He “was caught red-handed in a conflict of interest. Can you believe that? They’ve lost their sense of shame… He and his wife claim they did not discuss my case. Do they think we’re stupid?”

Yinon has already ruled that, even though Israel is currently governed by a transition government, there is no legal impediment to the formation of the House Committee.

To form a House Committee, the Knesset must first convene the Arrangements Committee, headed by Blue and White’s Nissenkorn, which deals with procedural parliamentary issues. It, in turn, would create a temporary House Committee to debate the immunity request.

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, in November, became the first sitting prime minister with charges against him when Mandelblit announced he would indict the prime minister for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu denies the charges.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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