Knesset panel bid to expedite PM immunity debate gets off to blustery start

Proposal to limit Knesset speaker’s power passes by 16 to 1, allowing lawmakers to convene House Committee to debate and vote on Netanyahu’s immunity request

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn (C) opens the Knesset Arrangements Committee, January 13, 2020. (Knesset)
Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn (C) opens the Knesset Arrangements Committee, January 13, 2020. (Knesset)

A bid to discuss, and likely reject, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for immunity from prosecution got off to a turbulent start Monday, as lawmakers bickered loudly and Likud members staged a protest walkout from the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee meeting.

Meeting the morning after the Knesset legal adviser released a ruling saying the Knesset could not block the formation of a House Committee — which will deal with the immunity request — Likud MKs nevertheless claimed that Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn, the committee chairman, did not have appropriate permission to convene the Arrangements Committee, which is tasked with setting up and staffing the House panel.

The meeting was called to approve Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon’s ruling limiting the Knesset speaker’s powers to block meetings. But playing a game of parliamentary chicken and egg, Likud MKs claimed that only Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein could give permission for such a meeting to approve the fact that he does not have that power, and since he had not done so in writing, the meeting had no legal standing.

The crux of Yinon’s ruling was that Edelstein did not have the right to prevent the Knesset plenum from forming a House Committee, which is usually not convened in a transitional government. As Knesset speaker, Edelstein must okay any meeting of Nissenkorn’s Arrangements Committee.

The panel eventually voted 16-1 to overturn a previous decision of the Arrangements Committee on December 15 reserving the right of okaying meetings to the Knesset speaker, setting into a motion a process that may eventually end with Netanyahu on the stand.

The Arrangements Committee deals with procedural parliamentary issues, and the dry procedural vote Monday means lawmakers can now convene a House Committee to debate and vote on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s immunity request in the coming weeks, perhaps even days, long before election day on March 2.

Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn (C) opens the Knesset Arrangements Committee, January 13, 2020. (Knesset)

Likud sources have said they will try to delay the process by tying it up in court and with other challenges, hoping to push it past March 2, when a new Knesset will be voted in.

Nissenkorn, who opened the debate by saying that a second meeting would take place at 2:30 p.m. “to debate forming a Knesset committee,” claimed he did in fact have permission from the Knesset speaker.

Asked by the Times of Israel if he had given permission of not, Edelstein’s office was cagey, referring queries about the document granting permission to the committee and refusing to give a simple yes or no answer.

During the meeting, Nissenkorn was repeatedly interrupted by Likud MKs, and he eventually booted MK Miki Zohar, chief among the interrupters from the debate.

When he returned, Zohar repeated his claims that the committee had no right to be meeting without written permission from the Knesset chairman, eventually standing up and leading the rest of the Likud MKs from the room after claiming that Blue and White were turning the Knesset into “an anti-Bibi circus.”

Likud’s Shlomo Karai remained behind and was the sole vote against overturning Edelstein’s powers.

“We will conduct discussions on immunity in a fair, pertinent and effective manner,” Nissenkorn said.

MKs from Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party voted in favor of the motion.

Yinon’s ruling paved the way for legislators to consider — and, with the current balance of power, almost certainly reject — Netanyahu’s request to receive immunity from the indictment he faces in the three criminal cases against him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 12, 2020. (Tsafrir Abayov / POOL / AFP)

Netanyahu had hoped to stall the immunity process until after election day. 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.

Once created, the House Committee will also field an unrelated immunity request by Likud MK Haim Katz, who also faces graft charges.

Yinon had 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.

The prime minister and his supporters were arguing that the House 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 the immunity requests.

They also repeated they claims that Yinon was in conflict of interest due to his wife being a senior member of the state prosecution team which formed the indictments against the prime minister.

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

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