Likud moves to stall all legislation as PM immunity bill hits roadblock

Likud moves to stall all legislation as PM immunity bill hits roadblock

Coalition whip says he'll hold up Ministerial Committee for Legislation for second straight week over Jewish Home party's opposition to 'French law'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with MK David Bitan in the Knesset plenum on October 24, 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with MK David Bitan in the Knesset plenum on October 24, 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A ministerial panel to fast-track legislation through the Knesset will apparently not convene for the second week in a row Sunday, amid a rift between coalition parties over a bill that could grant the prime minister immunity from criminal prosecution.

Coalition whip David Bitan said the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, chaired by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party, would not consider bill proposals, after a coordination conference call Saturday night broke down over opposition to the immunity bill.

Bitan, a close ally of Benjamin Netanyahu, is a staunch backer of the so-called “French Law,” which would provide immunity to serving prime ministers from corruption investigations until their terms are ended.

Jewish Home, though, has come out against the controversial legislation, and said on Wednesday that the coalition had agreed to delay the vote by a month. The Kulanu party has also refrained from endorsing the bill.

Earlier Saturday, Likud lawmaker David Amsalem, who wrote the bill, said the party would be forging ahead with the legislation, despite opposition from coalition partners.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to members of the Christian press during an event at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, October 15, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The bill is intended to prevent sitting prime ministers from having to deal with investigations into their affairs during their terms, leaving them able to focus on the business of governing the country. Its current draft excludes from its protections any investigation already launched, and so would not protect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from ongoing probes into him.

Critics, including Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and many lawmakers, have said the measure would place prime ministers above the law for years at a time, making them more likely to act unethically while they occupy the highest office in government. Fears have also been raised that provisions protecting Netanyahu himself could be added to the bill in committee after it passes its first readings in the plenum.

When Jewish Home refused to back the legislation during the conference call Saturday night, a decision was made to freeze all pending legislation until further notice, Bitan, the coalition whip, said. “We won’t advance any coalition bills, like last week,” if Jewish Home won’t vote for the bill, he told the Walla news site.

On October 22, Bitan froze the committee’s work as he attempted to fend off criticism of the bill from several coalition members.

Another piece of legislation that was initially slated to come to a vote in the committee on Sunday, on extending Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries to include several West Bank settlements, was taken off the agenda on Saturday, as Israel sought to avoid a clash with the US administration over the move.

Likud MK David Amsalem, chairman of the Interior Affairs Committee, left, and Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich during a committee meeting at the Knesset, July 11, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Amsalem had told Channel 2 news that the immunity law would go ahead without Jewish Home’s support, accusing the hawkish party of failing to live up to its coalition agreements and claiming support from Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon of Kulanu, a strident critic of the legislation.

Nevertheless, the Jewish Home party was adamant there would be no vote Sunday.

“Because this is a basic law, it can’t advance without our support,” sources in the party said. “There was a clear agreement that the bill would not come up now, and so, tomorrow it will also not come up for a vote.”

According to a letter sent Wednesday from Jewish Home’s Knesset faction chair, MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, to Bitan, Jewish Home’s decision to oppose the bill followed a “substantive and detailed discussion” in the faction meeting on Monday.

“The discussion revealed significant disagreements between members of the faction, and no agreement was reached,” she wrote. In light of that disagreement, Jewish Home decided to formally oppose the bill’s passage, Moalem-Refaeli said.

Jewish Home MK Shuli Mualem attends a party meeting in the Knesset, January 23, 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

According to the agreements that underpin the current ruling coalition, no changes to Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws can be passed without the agreement of all six coalition parties, giving each coalition partner a veto over such bills. Amsalem’s bill is just such an amendment to the Basic Law: The Government.

The proposed legislation comes as Netanyahu is being investigated in two corruption cases.

Earlier this month, it was reported that police were deepening their investigations into the actions of the prime minister and that he will be summoned soon for questioning in the two investigations against him, cases 1000 and 2000.

Case 1000 relates to allegations that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, received illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, most notably hundreds of thousands of shekels’ worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid-pro-quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister hobble a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

The prime minister denies any wrongdoing in either case.

Investigators are also expected to set a date for Netanyahu to provide testimony as a witness in Case 3000, which involves suspected corruption by several associates of the prime minister in the sale of German submarines to Israel. Though Netanyahu is not a suspect in the submarines case, his critics have accused him of pushing the prime minister immunity bill in order to ensure that he won’t be made one in the future.

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