Netanyahu aides fume at Edelstein for announcing immunity panel vote

PM’s associates say Knesset speaker ‘fell into the trap laid by the left’ by agreeing to hold vote on forming committee that’ll consider premier’s request for immunity

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein seen at a state ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem as Israel marks the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 12, 2018. (Noam Moskowitz/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein seen at a state ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem as Israel marks the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 12, 2018. (Noam Moskowitz/POOL)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly fuming on Sunday over Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s announcement that a vote will be held next week on forming the committee that will weigh the premier’s request for parliamentary immunity.

“It’s sad to see how Edelstein fell into the trap laid by the left. With his own hands he is allowing the Knesset to became a political circus during elections by lending a hand to the tricks of the left, which is trying to use the Knesset to neutralize Netanyahu,” read a statement attributed to associates of the prime minister.

Netanyahu’s son Yair went on record to attack the Likud Knesset speaker, tweeting and later deleting, “His wife’s father is Leonid Nevzlin, an oligarch who is wanted for murder in Russia, and the owner of Haaretz newspaper.”

Nevzlin was found guilty, in absentia, on several counts of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to life behind bars. In 2014, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of Nevzlin, a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing Moscow of carrying out a “a ruthless campaign to destroy [him] and to expropriate [his] assets.”

Yair Netanyahu, son of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at an election event in Tel Aviv, September 18, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The opposition Blue and White party lauded Edelstein’s decision and criticized the prime minister for seeking to pressure the Knesset speaker.

“Netanyahu is applying all possible pressure to prevent the deliberation on the immunity request, but despite the delay efforts, the immunity debates will start next week, [they] will be conducted in a fair and matter-of-fact manner and conclude before the elections,” the party said in a statement.

“Netanyahu requested a debate on immunity — Netanyahu will get [a debate]. We’ll prevent an extremist immunity coalition from continuing to drag down Israel solely for the personal interests of Netanyahu,” Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz tweeted.

Edelstein, in a statement earlier Sunday, explained his decision to convene the plenum for a vote on forming a panel to debate Netanyahu’s immunity request.

“Even though I disagree with the position of the Knesset legal adviser, I believe that, in order to maintain trust in the institution of Knesset speaker by all the factions, it is important to accept it,” he said.

Edelstein was referring to a legal opinion issued last week by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon that said a House Committee — the panel required to debate Netanyahu’s request — can be convened despite the Knesset being in recess ahead of the March 2 election.

Members of the Blue White political party Benny Gantz (L), Moshe Yaalon and Yair Lapid hold a press conference at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 10, 2019. (Flash90)

While green-lighting the formation of the plenum, the Knesset speaker did not mask his disgust for the topic at hand, calling the effort to vote on Netanyahu’s immunity request “invalid” and “constituting contempt of the legislature.”

He said the vote will not be held this week as Jerusalem welcomes leaders from around the world to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The earliest day on which the vote can be held will be next Tuesday, with Monday being International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The House Committee is widely expected to reject Netanyahu’s request for immunity from prosecution in the three criminal cases against him.

Edelstein has been under pressure from Netanyahu’s political rivals to hold a vote on forming the House Committee in the wake of the Knesset legal adviser’s ruling allowing it to convene.

The Knesset speaker, who said he disagreed with Yinon’s legal opinion but would abide by it, was also facing pressure from Netanyahu and his allies to block the plenum from voting on forming the committee.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein arrive for a joint event of the Knesset and the US Congress, celebrating 50 years since Jerusalem’s reunification, at the Chagall state hall in the Knesset, on June 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Likud lawmakers claimed that Yinon should not have been allowed to issue his ruling due to a “serious conflict of interest” stemming from the fact that his wife, Amit Merari, is part of the team of prosecutors who worked on the prime minister’s criminal cases.

While acknowledging the conflict of interest, Yinon said Thursday in response to a High Court of Justice petition filed by Likud MK Miki Zohar that his opinion on forming a House Committee — a procedural question — had no bearing on the actual cases against Netanyahu or the expected immunity proceedings in the Knesset.

On Friday, Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn called on Yinon to intervene over Edelstein’s failure to move forward on a request by Knesset members to review Netanyahu’s immunity request.

Noting adviser Yinon’s legal opinion, Nissenkorn said Edelstein had failed to call the plenum to vote on forming the committee, despite appeals by a majority of MKs that he do so.

Blue and White has reportedly threatened to oust Edelstein if he fails to convene the plenum by early next week.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (L) and Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon at the Knesset on May 7, 2013. (Flash)

Members of the Knesset Arrangements Committee voted Monday 16 to five in favor of establishing and staffing the key committee. But a vote on the establishment of the committee must also take place in the Knesset plenary open to all 120 MKs, a majority of whom, crucially including the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, have already declared that they support establishing the committee.

Yinon ruled last week that Edelstein does not have the right to prevent the Knesset plenum from forming the House Committee, which is usually not convened in a transitional government.

Once formed, the House Committee is likely to debate and potentially vote on Netanyahu’s immunity request in the coming weeks, perhaps even days, long before election day.

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 it to properly weigh the immunity requests.

Netanyahu’s immunity request, and his subsequent efforts to prevent the forming of the House Committee to debate it, were widely perceived as an effort to stall for time ahead of the March elections, because Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit cannot open trial proceedings against him before it is brought to a vote.

read more: