Likud MK floats bill that could hinder Netanyahu prosecution

Legislation sponsored by Miki Zohar would require approval by House Committee, which he chairs, and Knesset before indictments can be filed against lawmakers

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with MK Miki Zohar during a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, January 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with MK Miki Zohar during a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, January 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With the attorney general currently mulling police recommendations for indictments against Benjamin Netanyahu, a senior Likud lawmaker has proposed a bill that would prevent charges from being brought against the prime minister without the approval of a Knesset committee chaired by the lawmaker and a full Knesset vote.

The proposal being floated by Knesset House Committee chairman MK Miki Zohar aims to alter parliamentary immunity laws so that indictments can only be filed against lawmakers after the Knesset has given approval, reverting to a practice overhauled 12 years ago amid criticism that it protected corrupt and criminal MKs from prosecution.

The bill would reverse the current system: whereas now, MKs must vote in favor of giving a colleague immunity against a coming indictment, under Zohar’s proposal they would have the power to block an indictment by refusing to approve the removal of MKs’ immunity.

Currently, the attorney general can file an indictment against any Knesset member, minister or the prime minister, and only afterward ask the Knesset to remove the lawmaker’s immunity. The MK then has 30 days to ask the House Committee to decide that he is entitled to maintain immunity against the charges laid out in the indictment. If the committee rules against his request, the Knesset plenum can vote to strip his immunity, allowing the MK stand trial.

The earlier version of the law, which Zohar is aiming to revert to, required votes in both the House Committee and the plenum before the attorney can even file the charges.

View of a plenum session of the Knesset, July 2, 2018. (Flash90)

As chair of the House Committee, a position always held by a coalition member, Zohar would have considerable power over the process and its timetable.

That version of the law was amended in 2005 to remove the committee approval requirement following a number of attempts by MKs to hold off or prevent prosecution.

“The proposal is to restore the legal situation that existed prior to the amendment of the law in 2005,” Zohar’s bill reads, “and to determine if, for the purpose of filing an indictment against a Knesset member, the immunity will be removed by the Knesset. ”

The bill comes as three senior members of his party are facing possible indictments, including Netanyahu, who is under investigation as a criminal suspect in three corruption cases.

Zohar denied that the prime minister was in any way involved in his initiative and insisted he was acting in the interests of a healthy democracy.

“In order to prevent slander, it is worth noting that I came up with the proposal on my own and it is intended to protect all MKs from the right and left, and that the prime minister has no connection to the initiative,” Zohar said in a statement released after the bill was first reported by the Walla news website.

He did, however, make clear his disdain for the current investigations against Netanyahu, and suggested that any future indictment would lack legitimacy.

“A indictment for a trifling matter, especially when it is provocative and unfair and results from media or political pressure, should be decided only by the public,” he said.

Zionist Union MK Yoel Hasson attends a Knesset committee meeting on November 30, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The chairman of the opposition Zionist Union faction, MK Yoel Hasson, charged that the bill was part of a strategy by the government in preparation for calling elections.

“Israel is not a monarchy, Netanyahu is not sitting on a throne, and we cannot remain passive in the face of laws that aim to protect the ‘king,'” he said in a statement. “We are seeing a trailer for elections.”

Opposition MK Eliezer Stern (Yesh Atid) declared in a statement, “There is a good reason why there is a separation of powers in Israel — it is not the job of Knesset members to judge who is or isn’t suitable for immunity.”

MK Tamar Zandberg, leader of the left-wing Mertetz party, tweeted, “For Netanyahu and his followers all rules are temporary and meant to be momentarily bent for corrupt political expedience.”

The bill also drew a critical response from one Likud MK, Yehuda Glick, who warned in general terms against contentious legislation.

“Without referring specifically to Zohar’s bill, I recommend being cautious of bills that seem to be put together for specific circumstances,” he said in a statement. “Bad appearance is also important. It is important for the public to have trust that elected representatives are acting only out of consideration for the public interest and not the interests of certain people, no matter how important.”

Meretz party MK Tamar Zandberg speaks at a plenary session at the Knesset on September 17, 2018. (Flash90)

Netanyahu is under investigation for corruption in three separate cases, and lawmakers close to him have launched attacks on the press and police, proposing various pieces of legislation to limit their ability to report on or investigate public figures, respectively.

In two cases, cases 1000 and 2000, police have already recommended bribery indictments against the prime minister.

Netanyahu is also suspected of advancing regulatory decisions as communications minister and prime minister that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm, in an investigation known as Case 4000.

In May, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit informed Welfare Minister Haim Katz that would be charging him, pending a hearing, for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

MK David Bitan, also from Likud, resigned as coalition whip in December after it was revealed he was at the heart of a wide-scale corruption investigation.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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