Netanyahu loyalist refiles bill to grant PM immunity from prosecution
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Netanyahu loyalist refiles bill to grant PM immunity from prosecution

Legislation sponsored by Miki Zohar would require that indictments against lawmakers be approved by House Committee, which he chairs, and by Knesset

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) with MK Miki Zohar during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, December 7, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) with MK Miki Zohar during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, December 7, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A Likud ally of Benjamin Netanyahu has officially submitted legislation aimed at granting the prime minister immunity from prosecution, even as sources close to the premier deny he intends to change the law in order to prevent an indictment being filed against him.

MK Miki Zohar’s bill was officially placed on the Knesset’s docket late Monday night along with 200 other proposals set to begin the legislative process in the coming weeks.

The bill proposes that Netanyahu and any other MK would by default be granted immunity from prosecution unless the Knesset House Committee — which Zohar himself chaired in the last legislative term and is expected to continue to helm throughout the 21st Knesset — votes to strip the lawmaker of that right. The bill would reverse the current system: Whereas now, MKs must vote in favor of giving a colleague immunity against a coming indictment, under Zohar’s proposal they would have the power to block an indictment by refusing to approve the removal of MKs’ immunity.

The submission of the bill was met with strong protests from opposition lawmakers, with Blue and White MK Moshe Ya’alon vowing his party would work to prevent the proposed legislation from becoming law.

The legislation was intended for the benefit of just one person, Ya’alon, a former Likud minister, told the Ynet news site, and would “turn the Knesset in a refuge for criminals led by Netanyahu.”

“If Netanyahu cared about the State of Israel he would have resigned two years ago,” Ya’alon added, and announced a protest demonstration on Saturday in Tel Aviv.

Likud MK Miki Zohar during a Knesset committee debate on cancelling the 2013 law limiting the number of ministers, May 20, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich said the bill was “proof” that Netanyahu’s focus in coalition talks was protecting himself from prosecution.

“Everyone with clean hands must be enlisted to save the country from the hands of those who trample on it to save their necks,” she said.

Speculation has swirled that, following his reelection last month, Netanyahu may use his election victory — which his allies have touted as proof that Israelis don’t want to see him indicted — to advance legislation that would immunize him from prosecution as long as he remains prime minister. He is reported to be considering conditioning entry to his new government on potential coalition parties’ support for one of a variety of possible legislative initiatives, including the change to the current immunity law sought by Zohar and/or a so-called “French law” sheltering a sitting prime minister from prosecution.

It has also been reported that Netanyahu wants to advance legislation that would prevent the Supreme Court from subsequently overturning a Knesset decision to grant him immunity, as part of a highly controversial legislative initiative to curb the powers of the Supreme Court to “override” Knesset legislation and administrative decisions, and government decisions, that the court regards as unconstitutional. In response to those reports, Netanyahu last week wrote in a Facebook post that he has always supported “a strong and independent court — but that does not mean an all-powerful court.”

In February, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing, in three cases, dubbed by police cases 1000, 2000 and 4000. Charges include fraud and breach of trust in all three cases, and bribery in one of them. The prime minister denies all the allegations.

Prior to the April 9 elections, Netanyahu gave mixed signals when asked whether he would seek to evade prosecution by means of Knesset legislation to guarantee himself immunity and to prevent the Supreme Court from overturning that immunity. On one occasion, in a late March television interview, he dismissed the idea but then backtracked within seconds. On May 15, a Channel 12 television report said Netanyahu had conclusively decided to legislate in order to avoid prosecution for as long as he remains in office. It said Netanyahu and members of his close circle had begun briefing Likud MKs “on how to market this to the public.”

On Sunday however, sources close to the prime minister told The Times of Israel’s Hebrew site, Zman Yisrael, that Netanyahu has scrapped the idea of the new immunity bill in the face of mounting criticism.

The official filing of Zohar’s bill would suggest that Netanyahu does in fact intend to change the law in his favor.

Last month, Zohar carried out a media blitz explaining his efforts to extricate Netanyahu from indictment in the corruption cases against him.

The ruling party’s dramatic election victory meant that prosecutors should reconsider pursuing criminal charges against Netanyahu, Zohar said, arguing that indicting a victorious Netanyahu would amount to subverting the public will.

“The people decided that the cases [against Netanyahu] aren’t criminal in nature,” Zohar argued in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a conference at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan on March 28, 2019. (Flash90)

Mandelblit said earlier this month that the results of the general election would have no bearing on his decisions in the criminal cases against Netanyahu. And in strongly worded comments, the attorney general called allegations that the premier was being framed — such as have been made repeatedly by Netanyahu himself — “nonsense intended to delegitimize the law-enforcement system.”

Mandelblit rejected suggestions by some politicians that Netanyahu’s reelection in the April 9 vote should bring an end to the criminal process against him.

“It has been claimed that there may be some connection between the election process and its results, and the criminal proceedings in progress,” he said. “I will state what is obvious to me: The criminal process does not intersect with the election process. Neither is it influenced by it.”

Quoting from a 1993 ruling in a corruption case against Shas party minister Rafael Pinhasi, Mandelblit said: “The will of the people does not supplant the rule of law, and cannot replace it.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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