Netanyahu mulls pulling immunity request as Knesset pushes ahead

Right-wing bloc to boycott Tuesday Knesset vote on forming panel to discuss and likely reject immunity, leaving prime minister vulnerable to indictment before election day

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud party campaign event at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem on January 21, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud party campaign event at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem on January 21, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may withdraw his request for parliamentary immunity from indictment in three looming corruption cases, Likud officials said Sunday.

If Netanyahu does so, he could find himself formally indicted in the coming weeks, before the March 2 election.

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. Mandelblit cannot officially indict Netanyahu until the Knesset votes on his request.

But the bloc of right-wing and religious parties that backs him in the run-up to election day lacks the 61-vote majority to grant him that immunity — or even to delay a decision until after March 2, which would have allowed him to get through the election unindicted.

Despite pressure from Netanyahu’s allies to try and delay proceedings, the Knesset is expected to meet Tuesday to vote on forming the Knesset House Committee, the parliamentary body that considers immunity requests. That body will then take up the request, and may issue a decision — almost certainly rejecting Netanyahu’s immunity request — by election day.

The 22nd Knesset is sworn in on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The rightist-religious bloc behind the prime minister has fought against holding the vote, hoping to delay the establishment of the committee. It announced Sunday its members would boycott the plenum on Tuesday in a symbolic move meant to deny the vote public legitimacy.

But the vote is likely to move ahead, as a majority of 65 lawmakers in the 120-member parliament have already said they will support the formation of the House Committee.

It’s unclear what Netanyahu would gain by withdrawing his request, as the result would almost certainly be the same. Netanyahu had reportedly originally agonized over asking for immunity, which undercut his earlier defense that he would ultimately be found innocent of the charges against him.

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.

The plenum discussion will take place as Netanyahu is in Washington for the unveiling of US President Donald Trump’s long-awaited peace plan, whose timing, announced last week, has been criticized in Israel as an attempt to rescue Netanyahu from the immunity proceedings.

The premier’s main election rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, will meet Trump on Monday and will then travel back to Israel to take part in the Knesset deliberation.

Likud MK Miki Zohar accused rival parties, led by Blue and White, of acting in a manner “contrary to all the rules since the day of the Knesset’s establishment” by acting to set up the House Committee in the run-up to an election.

“We won’t take part in this and won’t cooperate in their election campaign of ‘just not Bibi [Netanyahu],’” tweeted Zohar, an ally of the prime minister.

A composite photo showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White party chief, Benny Gantz, right, speaking separately at a media conference in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s political bloc includes the Likud, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) parties. So far only UTJ has not confirmed that it will boycott Tuesday’s vote.

Blue and White denounced the boycott, saying: “It’s unfortunate that the head of the transitional government continues to disrespect the Knesset and democratic rule and refuses to have his people take part in the discussion of the immunity request — which he initiated to evade justice. Netanyahu asked for a discussion of his immunity, and Netanyahu will get one.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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