Likud petitions High Court against Knesset lawyer ruling on PM’s immunity panel
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Likud petitions High Court against Knesset lawyer ruling on PM’s immunity panel

Parliament’s legal adviser reportedly set to okay immediate formation of committee to deal with request, dashing Netanyahu’s hope of delaying trial for months

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem on January 1, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem on January 1, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Likud party petitioned the High Court on Sunday to block the publication of a legal opinion by the Knesset chief legal adviser that could open the possibility of the legislature immediately moving to review Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s immunity request in his three criminal cases — and likely rejecting it.

The petition, filed by Likud Knesset faction chair MK Miki Zohar on behalf of the ruling party, calls on the court to prevent Eyal Yinon from issuing a ruling set to be released later Sunday on whether the Knesset speaker can prevent the formation of a committee that would deal with Netanyahu’s immunity request. The petition claims that Eyal Ynon is in a “serious conflict of interest” because his wife Amit Merari was 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, and in a manner that undermines public confidence in the important institution of the Knesset legal adviser,” the petition claims.

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, however, has argued that his decision over setting up the Knesset committee is not directly related to immunity but rather to parliamentary procedure.

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

The petition claims that if Yinon had had links to Netanyahu’s defense team, he would have been immediately prevented from ruling on the issue.

“Does anyone really believe that if Yinon’s spouse was on the prime minister’s defense team, he would have been able to engage directly or indirectly in any matter concerning the prime minister? Would that not have disqualified him from debating the matter? Just as this situation would have justly led to the disqualification of his opinions then, so should it be now.”

According to reports on Channel 12, Yinon is expected to pave the way for the Knesset House Committee to be formed and to begin discussing the immunity request, despite the objections of Netanyahu, his Likud party, and the Knesset speaker, Likud MK Yuli Edelstein.

The opinion set to be released Sunday will rule whether Knesset Speaker Edelstein has the authority to prevent the formation of the House Committee. A majority of lawmakers support setting up the committee to hear Netanyahu’s immunity request.

In a letter to the High Court following the filing of the Likud’s petition, Yinon said that since he had made it clear from as early as Thursday that he planned to announce his decision on Sunday, and since the petition does not call for an immediate blocking of his decision until a final ruling is announced, he still plans to release his own ruling Sunday afternoon, at 4 p.m.. Edelstein, who had called a press conference for 1:15 p.m., announced that he would delay his statements until 5 p.m.

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)

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 March 2 general elections. Netanyahu had been hoping that his request would not be discussed until after the elections, when he would hope to have a parliamentary majority.

Channel 12 reported that should Yinon rule the Knesset can move to convene the House Committee — the panel that must discuss and vote on MKs’ requests for immunity before a vote in the full parliament — Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz, would seek to do so without delay.

It would then allow 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 obstacle to the formation of the House Committee.

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)

Netanyahu has formally asked for parliamentary immunity from prosecution in the three corruption cases in which he has been charged. But he had anticipated that lawmakers would be unable to swiftly set up the House Committee to discuss his request, thus pushing off the process until after the March 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. Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party has said it would vote against it.

After the March elections, by contrast, Netanyahu hopes 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.

To form a House Committee, the Knesset must first convene the Arrangements Committee, 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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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