Aims to end fear of fabricated cases, political persecution

Right-wing ally of Netanyahu proposes bill to save him from prosecution

Claiming ‘deep state conspiracy,’ MK Bezalel Smotrich wants to make it easier for lawmakers to protect each other from criminal charges

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Left, Bezalel Smotrich, after winning the election for chairman of the National Union, at the Crown Plaza hotel in Jerusalem, January 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90). Right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a drill of the Armored Corps in Shizafon Base, in southern Israel on January 23, 2019. (Flash90)
Left, Bezalel Smotrich, after winning the election for chairman of the National Union, at the Crown Plaza hotel in Jerusalem, January 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90). Right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a drill of the Armored Corps in Shizafon Base, in southern Israel on January 23, 2019. (Flash90)

Days after Israel’s attorney general said that he plans to indict Benjamin Netanyahu, pending a hearing, one of the prime minister’s allies on the right has initiated legislation designed to prevent any charges from being brought against him so long as he remains in office by boosting protection from prosecution for all accused politicians.

Facing possible indictment in three corruption cases, including one charge of bribery, Netanyahu has been rumored to be planning to condition entry to the post-election coalition he hopes to form on support for the so-called “French law,” which would shelter him from prosecution as long as he remains in office.

Preempting the need for any such move, MK Bezalel Smotrich, number two in the new Union of Right Wing Parties and chair of the hard-line National Union faction within it, on Wednesday filed a bill that would give lawmakers increased powers to block charges against sitting Knesset members, including the prime minister.

Echoing statements made by Netanyahu in response to last week’s announcement by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Smotrich said in a statement that the bill would prevent what he described as an ongoing conspiracy to “overthrow” the government.

Head of the National Union faction MK Bezalel Smotrich during a conference of the Movement for the Quality of Government, in Modiin, February 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“The ‘deep state’ has in recent years reached heights we have never seen before, and there is a fear that there are elements that joining together in order to overthrow the right-wing government,” he said.

The proposal aims to alter parliamentary immunity laws so that indictments can only be filed against lawmakers after the Knesset has given approval, reverting to a practice that was overhauled 12 years ago amid criticism that it protected corrupt and criminal MKs from prosecution.

Smotrich said the measure would “allow Knesset members to supervise the work of the executive branch without fear or worry of cases being fabricated or of political persecution by endless investigations as a tool for political assassinations.”

There was no immediate response to the legislative initiative by Netanyahu or other MKs. The Knesset is not currently in session, having dissolved ahead of the April 9 elections. It could start to debate such legislation in a special session, but there has been no immediate indication of any such intention.

The bill would reverse the current system: whereas now, MKs must vote in favor of giving a colleague immunity against a coming indictment, under Smotrich’s proposal they would have the power to block an indictment by refusing to approve the removal of MKs’ immunity.

Currently, the attorney general can file an indictment against any Knesset member, minister or the prime minister, and only afterward ask the Knesset to remove the lawmaker’s immunity. The MK then has 30 days to ask the House Committee to decide that he is entitled to maintain immunity against the charges laid out in the indictment. If the committee rules against his request, the Knesset plenum can vote to strip his immunity, allowing the MK stand trial.

The earlier version of the law, which Smotrich is aiming to revert to, required votes in both the House Committee and the plenum before the attorney can even file the charges.

View of a plenum session of the Knesset, July 2, 2018. (Flash90)

That version of the law was amended in 2005 to remove the committee approval requirement following a number of attempts by MKs to hold off or prevent prosecution.

“The proposal is to restore the legal situation that existed prior to the amendment of the law in 2005,” Smotrich’s bill reads, “and to determine if, for the purpose of filing an indictment against a Knesset member, the immunity will be removed by the Knesset.”

Mandelblit announced last Thursday that Netanyahu will be charged with criminal wrongdoing in three separate cases against him, including bribery in the far-reaching Bezeq corruption probe, pending a hearing.

The decision marks the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister has been told he faces criminal charges, and casts a heavy shadow over Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.

The announcement of Mandelblit’s intention to indict the prime minister, who long argued that the decision should be postponed until after the election so that it would not affect public opinion, places Netanyahu’s legal situation front and center in the campaign.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Multiple surveys published over the days since Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu, subject to a hearing, predicted Likud could be unable to form a governing right-wing coalition after the April 9 elections, with the right-wing bloc dropping several seats. One poll showed Gantz narrowly ahead of Netanyahu on the question of suitability for prime minister, the first time such a result has been seen since Gantz entered politics.

Last month Netanyahu brokered a deal that saw the formation of a union between the right-wing Jewish Home party and the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) faction led by former disciples of the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, in a bid to strengthen the position of a possible Likud-led coalition after the vote.

The Union of Right Wing Parties has backed Netanyahu as “innocent until proven guilty,” and warned his possible fall could lead to the establishment of a “Palestinian terror state.”

In other cases potentially facing MKs, police said in November they were recommending an indictment against Interior Minister Aryeh Deri on a slew of corruption charges, including alleged crimes committed while in office.

Police said there was a basis of evidence that the Shas leader, who was previously jailed for corruption while serving as interior minister, had committed fraud, breach of trust, obstructing court proceedings, money laundering, and tax offenses involving millions of shekels, some of which happened while he was a cabinet minister.

In May, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit informed Welfare Minister Haim Katz that would be charging him, pending a hearing, for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

Additionally, police are reportedly set to recommend indicting MK David Bitan for his involvement in a wide-scale corruption scheme.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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