Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party believe he may boycott expected Knesset hearings on his request for immunity from prosecution for graft charges, according to a television report Wednesday.
The Knesset is set to vote next week on forming the panel that will weigh — and likely reject — Netanyahu’s request, with deliberations scheduled to begin at the end of month.
In Likud, the assumption is that Netanyahu himself will not be present at the hearings and may not even send his lawyers, Channel 12 news reported.
Staying away from the yet-to-be-formed Knesset House Committee would apparently be aimed at delegitimizing the proceedings, which Netanyahu has portrayed as a political maneuver by rivals ahead of the March 2 elections.
Netanyahu announced at the start of January that he would ask the Knesset for parliamentary immunity, as he faced a legal deadline to do so, following Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision to charge him in three corruption cases.
With the House Committee unstaffed because of Israel’s continued political stalemate, it appeared the Knesset would not take up the immunity debate until after the upcoming elections — giving Likud and its allies a chance to win a majority that could secure Netanyahu’s immunity request, or at the very least delaying a trial by months.
But Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon later ruled that Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a Likud member, does not have the right to prevent the Knesset plenum from forming a House Committee, clearing the way for the panel’s establishment.
Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn, head of the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee, on Tuesday penciled in January 30 at 2:30 p.m. as the start of Netanyahu’s hearings, which are expected to take a week and include six sessions.
The scheduled start, however, depends on a plenum vote scheduled for next Tuesday to form the House Committee. Parties that oppose granting Netanyahu immunity together have a majority of seats in the Knesset, meaning the committee will likely be established.
Once it is formed, the House Committee will also take up Likud MK Haim Katz’s request for immunity from criminal charges. The committee will hold two sessions on Katz’s request — on January 30 and February 4.
Edelstein on Sunday agreed to convene the Knesset plenum next week in order to vote on forming the House Committee, a decision that immediately drew fire from within his party’s ranks. Netanyahu reportedly fumed, with a statement attributed to his associates asserting: “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 become 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.”
But it is not clear that Edelstein could prevent the plenum from convening even if he wanted to. The vote was requested by 25 MKs representing factions that constitute a majority of the Knesset, fulfilling the requirement for convening the plenum contained in the Knesset Law’s Article 9B, which states that a speaker “shall convene the Knesset, outside the Knesset session… upon the demand of 25 Members of Knesset or the Government.”
Edelstein was caught in a political vise, between Likud’s anger on the one hand and a threat from Blue and White to oust him from the speakership on the other, if he failed to order the plenum convened. Blue and White is believed to have enough votes to carry out the threat.
Once formed, the House Committee could conceivably debate and potentially vote on Netanyahu’s immunity request in the coming weeks, ahead of election day. Even if it fails to reach a verdict by then, its meetings are likely to keep Netanyahu’s criminal proceedings front and center in the election campaign.
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 request.
Netanyahu’s 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 Mandelblit cannot open trial proceedings against him before it is brought to a vote.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust in three cases, and bribery in one of them. He denies any wrongdoing, and claims, without evidence, that the charges are part of an attempted “political coup” against him involving the opposition, media, police and state prosecution.