Netanyahu’s immunity bid, swiftly pricked by Liberman, is an act of desperation

The prime minister has either put off his court appearance by a few months at best, or pushed Israel toward a constitutional crisis, or both

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces his intention to file a request to the Knesset for immunity from prosecution, in Jerusalem on January 1, 2020. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces his intention to file a request to the Knesset for immunity from prosecution, in Jerusalem on January 1, 2020. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration Wednesday night that he is seeking parliamentary immunity from prosecution was unprecedented and hugely dramatic. For the first time in Israel’s history, a prime minister now aims to persuade his Knesset colleagues to allow him to avoid being tried for corruption. And until they have made their decision, which could be months from now, he will not be required to stand in the dock at Jerusalem District Court and face the three graft charges issued against him.

But a second drama followed hard on the heels of the first, with Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman immediately announcing that his party “will not be part of the immunity coalition.”

It was Liberman who, unexpectedly, refused to join a Netanyahu government after April’s election. It was Liberman, after September’s re-vote, who refused to join anything other than a unity coalition including both Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party. And it is Liberman who still holds the balance of power between the Netanyahu- and Gantz-led political blocs in surveys ahead of March’s third rapid-fire election.

Since Liberman has now declared that he and his party will not back Netanyahu’s bid for Knesset immunity, the prime minister’s gambit has instantly become significantly less likely to succeed. And if, as is more than probable, the prime minister anticipated that Liberman would not back his bid for immunity, his move stands as an act of desperation.

Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman speaks during an event in Ashdod, southern Israel, on December 12, 2019. (Flash90)

Netanyahu’s immunity opponents are now seeking to select and convene the Knesset House Committee, which handles MKs’ immunity requests, as soon as possible, and certainly before the March elections. They would then want to organize a vote in which, given that there is now a declared Knesset majority against granting him immunity, the prime minister’s request would be stopped dead in its tracks.

Amid much confusion and legalistic argument Wednesday night, the prevailing assessment was that establishing the committee and completing the debate and voting process will not happen, and thus the focus will shift to the next Knesset. To secure the required majority for immunity there, Netanyahu and his lawmaker loyalists would need to win 61 or more seats on March 2 — something they failed to do last April, and failed again to do in September.

The “pro-immunity bloc,” in other words, would have to perform better in March than it did before Netanyahu had been charged, when he was still insisting that he never would be charged, and when he was vowing that he would not resort to immunity machinations to avoid a trial because the allegations against him amounted to “nothing.”

The “pro-immunity bloc” would also have to rebound from the internal Likud election last month, in which more than a quarter of Netanyahu’s own party members voted for rival Gideon Sa’ar as leader. And it would have to defy the polls that indicate a majority of the electorate, including by definition a proportion of the political right, opposes granting immunity for Netanyahu.

But even that’s not all.

In the event that Netanyahu and his immunity-loyalists do defy the odds and secure Knesset immunity for him, they can reasonably expect the Supreme Court to strike their decision down, with the court unlikely to accept that the clause in the immunity law (Hebrew link) that Netanyahu seeks to invoke legitimately applies in his case. Netanyahu argued on Wednesday evening that the charges against him were issued in bad faith — specifically that he has been framed by his own attorney general — and that he is the victim of a conspiracy intended to illicitly counter the will of the electorate. The justices could hardly endorse what would amount to the legislature’s declaration that the cops, the state prosecution and the attorney general are the corrupt orchestrators of a political coup.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut (C) arrives for a High Court preliminary hearing on whether a lawmaker facing criminal indictment can be tapped to form a coalition, December 31, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And thus, to retain his parliamentary immunity, Netanyahu would next have to push through legislation curbing the authority of the Supreme Court to intervene — remaking the delicate balance between Israel’s legislature and the judiciary.

That he will get the votes for parliamentary immunity is a long-shot; that he could then muster the votes to remake Israel’s democratic balance seems beyond improbable.

Us against them

In marked contrast to his angry, shaken appearance in November, immediately after the attorney general had announced the charges against him, Netanyahu on Wednesday was confident and warm. Rather than mainly trashing the police and the prosecutors, he reached out repeatedly to the “citizens of Israel,” attempting to rally them constructively to his cause.

He began not with his legal problems but with his prime ministerial track record, declaring the past 10 years to have been “the best decade in Israel’s history.” He promised a dazzling list of further “historic achievements” under his leadership in the years ahead — stopping Iran, setting Israel’s permanent borders, signing a defense treaty with the US, finalizing more peace agreements with Arab states, and extending Israeli sovereignty into the territories. Achievements we only dreamed of, he exalted, are “now within reach.”

Netanyahu focused on the glories he can deliver because he needs the Israeli public, in greater numbers than in April and September, to accept that only he — and not the “politically bankrupt” Gantz, and the rest of the despicable, leftist political opposition — can keep Israel safe and thriving. He thus set the scene for what promises to be an election campaign that is bitter and divisive even by the standards of our routinely bitter and divisive campaigns. (All this again, on the assumption that the current Knesset doesn’t stop his immunity bid in its tracks in the next few days or weeks.)

If Netanyahu succeeds in winning the votes — to secure Knesset immunity, and then to prevent the Supreme Court from striking it down — Israel will find itself heading deep into a constitutional crisis. If he fails, then what he did last night was buy himself a few more months, at the helm of an Israel whose divisions he continues to exacerbate.

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