Blue and White leader Benny Gantz on Tuesday slammed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for allegedly seeking to negotiate a coalition whose members would guarantee his immunity from prosecution.
“Blue and White will lead the fight against the prime minister’s efforts to buy himself a coalition that will serve as his own personal legal fortress,” said Gantz, who failed to unseat Netanyahu in elections two weeks ago. “We won’t let that happen.”
Gantz, whose Blue and White was defeated by Netanyahu’s Likud in April 9’s elections, issued the statement after Bezalel Smotrich, of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, confirmed that his party, as part of its agenda ahead of coalition talks with Netanyahu, intends to advance legislation to grant automatic immunity from prosecution for all MKs. While Smotrich has claimed he is not championing this legislative amendment in order to protect Netanyahu, if passed it would mean the prime minister could not be put on trial in the three criminal cases for which he is facing prosecution, pending a hearing.
A spokesperson for the Union of Right-Wing Parties told The Times of Israel on Monday that the far-right slate was demanding Netanyahu commit to annexing all Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a precondition to joining his government. In exchange, the spokesperson said the URWP would sponsor legislation that would grant the prime minister immunity from prosecution.
“Establishing a government whose sole purpose is immunity for Netanyahu is unacceptable,” Gantz said in his statement Tuesday.
Gantz, whose Blue and White party will be the biggest opposition faction in the upcoming Knesset — it won 35 seats, as did Likud — released the statement after a number of opposition lawmakers denounced his silence on the issue. His comments marked his first remarks regarding the coalition talks.
He also criticized the fact that a former aide to Netanyahu who resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations is part of the Likud negotiating team in the coalition talks. “Employing Natan Eshel, trying to delay the hearing, selling the basic values of democracy. How sad and how unsurprising,” Gantz said in his statement.
Eshel is Netanyahu’s former chief of staff who resigned from the Prime Minister’s Office as part of a plea bargain in 2012, but has returned to the political fray as a representative for Likud in the talks. Eshel’s return to politics drew condemnations from opposition lawmakers and women’s groups, who called on the attorney general to ban Eshel from the negotiations.
Gantz’s reference to “trying to delay the hearing” followed the news earlier this week that Netanyahu’s attorneys in the graft cases have failed to collect the legal documents regarding the cases that were made available by the attorney general’s office two weeks, in what some have construed is an effort by Netanyahu to delay the hearing process. One of Netanyahu’s lawyers, Pini Rubin, said on Army Radio on Tuesday, however, that the lawyers had not collected the material because they had not yet been paid for their work.
Last week, President Reuven Rivlin officially tasked Netanyahu with assembling a coalition to govern the 21st Knesset. Netanyahu, who will be serving as prime minister for an unprecedented fifth term, is expected to put together a coalition of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties who together hold 65 of the 120 Knesset seats.
URWP will officially enter negotiations with Netanyahu’s Likud party next week, but has begun to publicly press for a long list of demands, ranging from high level ministerial portfolios to legislation that will blunt the power of the Supreme Court to act as a check on the Knesset.
Netanyahu has given contradictory answers when asked whether he would seek to advance or benefit from legislation that would give him immunity from prosecution, while also denying any wrongdoing. Under the existing immunity law, any MK can seek immunity by winning a majority in the Knesset House Committee and then in the Knesset plenum. Smotrich’s proposal would grant MKs automatic immunity, which could then only be lifted by a majority in the House Committee and the plenum.
Several other MKs are also facing possible prosecution and could thus also potentially benefit from automatic immunity.
The URWP amalgam is made up of the national religious Jewish Home and National Union parties along with the Otzma Yehudit faction, a radical far-right group led by self-proclaimed disciples of the late American Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned in Israel in the 1980s for racism. The deal on URWP’s inclusion of Otzma Yehedit was personally brokered by Netanyahu.
Jacob Magid contributed to this report.