Ministers uneasy about police recommendations bill, but won’t block it

Kulanu leader defends decision to back ‘Netanyahu-shielding’ legislation as committee hammers out final version and NGO takes case to court

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett (L), Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (C) and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon seen during a vote in the Knesset, December 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett (L), Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (C) and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon seen during a vote in the Knesset, December 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Several cabinet ministers voiced reservations about the so-called police recommendations bill, as a Knesset committee convened Thursday to fine-tune the legislation for its final votes next week and a rights group took the fight to the High Court of Justice.

The bill by Likud MK David Amsalem has widely been seen as an attempt by lawmakers to shield Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under investigation in two ongoing corruption probes, from public fallout should police find sufficient evidence against him to warrant criminal charges.

The revised bill approved by the Knesset on Monday in its first reading would bar police investigators from informing prosecutors whether they believe there are grounds for indictment (although the provision would not apply to the ongoing Netanyahu investigations) and from publicizing information or leaking conclusions to the media.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan and the Israel Police are all opposed to the bill.

“It’s not unreasonable that there is a connection between the police recommendations bill and Netanyahu’s investigations,” Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett, the education minister, conceded at a conference Wednesday. “I’m not crazy about the law, but it’s not the end of the world or the end of democracy.”

Speaking at the same event, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) said, “I wouldn’t advance the recommendations bill, but in a coalition you make compromises.”

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, leader of the Kulanu party, doubled down on Thursday on his decision to back the law, after amendments were inserted allowing the attorney general to consult with police on Netanyahu’s cases (but not, critically, to publicize their conclusions).

“I spoke this morning with the attorney general to again ensure we didn’t make a mistake here,” Kahlon told Army Radio. “He told me explicitly, ‘I can ask for recommendations in Netanyahu’s cases or any case that is being investigated now.'”

Kahlon disputed accounts by his own party member Roy Folkman that the coalition was threatening new elections should Kulanu oppose the bill.

“To come and say that we caved and approved a personal law in [backing the] police recommendations bill is simply not true,” he said.

Kahlon is giving his party members the freedom to vote for or against the bill.

Likud MK David Amsalem chairs an Interior Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset on November 21, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Wednesday, Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon said Netanyahu and Welfare Minister Haim Katz — who is also under police investigation — won’t participate in the upcoming plenum votes on the controversial bill so as to avoid a potential conflict of interest.

Coalition chairman David Bitan, a vocal proponent of the bill who is reportedly also set to be grilled by police over corruption suspicions against him, dismissed suggestions he should also abstain from voting.

“I’m telling you in advance, this law won’t apply to me and therefore there is no conflict of interest in my voting for it,” Bitan told Army Radio on Thursday morning.

Also Thursday, The Movement for Quality Government in Israel petitioned the High Court of Justice over the decision to see the bill revised in the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee, which is chaired by the bill’s author, Amsalem. They are seeking to move the legislation to another committee and have the court annul the Knesset’s first reading of the bill.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with MK Daivd Bitan during a plenum session in the Knesset, November 13, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Amsalem’s committee reconvened Thursday to discuss the legislation, with new clauses allowing police to continue issuing recommendations to prosecutors on the evidentiary basis for charges — but not an explicit call to indict — in all cases except for those overseen by a prosecutor. Currently, police do not explicitly recommend indictments but issue a summary outlining whether there is an evidential basis for charges.

In cases overseen by a prosecutor — namely high-profile cases, such as against public officials — recommendations on both the evidentiary basis and indictments are illegal, the draft said, with new exceptions made for security crimes, sex crimes, and suspects of criminal organizations. Moreover, investigators who leak information from the cases can be jailed for a year, with the attorney general tasked with formulating how to enforce this within three months, according to the bill.

Additional committee meetings to finalize the bill have been scheduled for this coming Sunday and Monday. Though the bill was expected to be brought to its final readings on Monday night, on Wednesday coalition chairman Bitan indicated it could be delayed due to some coalition lawmakers being abroad.

Netanyahu is under investigation in two separate cases on suspicions he accepted pricey gifts from billionaire benefactors and negotiated an quid-pro-quo deal with a newspaper publisher in a bid for more favorable coverage. He denies the allegations against him.

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