Opposition forms key panel as MKs claim victory over PM’s abandoned immunity bid

Opposition forms key panel as MKs claim victory over PM’s abandoned immunity bid

After Netanyahu drops attempt to avoid trial, lawmakers vote to establish House Committee to deal with immunity request of Likud’s Haim Katz, also facing indictment

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

MKs vote on the formation of the Knesset House Committee, January 28, 2020. (Yitzhak Harrari/Knesset)
MKs vote on the formation of the Knesset House Committee, January 28, 2020. (Yitzhak Harrari/Knesset)

Knesset members on Tuesday voted to establish a key committee that will deal with Likud MK and former welfare minister Haim Katz’s request for parliamentary immunity from a pending indictment, hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he was withdrawing his own request for immunity from a separate indictment in the three corruption cases against him.

With members of the ruling Likud and its bloc of right-wing and religious parties boycotting the debate, the motion to form the Knesset House Committee passed by 60-0, with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu joining the opposition factions, led by Blue and White, in supporting the proposal.

Blue and White had initially planned for the committee, starting on Thursday, to debate — and almost certainly reject — Netanyahu’s request. Despite the prime minister’s announcement that he would not be seeking immunity, Blue and White decided to push ahead with Tuesday’s planned vote in order to debate Katz’s unrelated request.

Katz resigned as welfare minister in August after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he would bring fraud and breach of trust charges against him for allegedly advancing legislation meant to benefit a financial consultant to major Israeli firms who was also a close friend and financial adviser to Katz himself.

Welfare Minister Haim Katz attends a Finance Committee meeting discussing raising the age of retirement for women at the Knesset on November 13, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Despite Netanyahu’s immunity request being taken off the table, MKs used Tuesday’s debates to berate the prime minister for his initial request to be granted immunity, and to claim victory over him for the abandoned bid.

“Today I am pleased to say that no one in the State of Israel is above the law, not even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We are still in the State of Israel and not in the State of Bibistan, thank God” declared Meretz chair Nitzan Horowitz from the Knesset podium.

“He withdrew his request for immunity after he found out that there would be no majority… Netanyahu has failed in his attempt to evade justice,” Horowitz said, adding that the prime minister must now “leave the political arena immediately to go and tend to his legal affairs.”

Several hours later, with five weeks to go before the March 2 election, the attorney general filed the indictment against Netanyahu with the Jerusalem District Court.

“The effort to turn the Knesset into a refuge city has failed,” said fellow Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg.

Numerous Blue and White MKs criticized Netanyahu for ordering a boycott of the debate, saying that the behavior was symbolic of his attacks of Israel’s law enforcement agencies.

“This disrespect of Israel’s Knesset is a stain on Netanyahu and comes after months of frontal attacks on the police and the state prosecutor and any one of any institution that stands in his way,” Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn, who will chair the new House Committee, said.

“We, in Blue and White, will respect the Knesset and the rule of law,” Nissenkorn countered.

Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid said that the government benches were empty “because it is no longer a government or a coalition that works for Israel, but a government and coalition that only works for saving Netanyahu.”

Responding to the prime minister’s announcement that he was withdrawing his immunity request, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz said in an earlier statement that Netanyahu cannot run the country while standing trial in the three three cases against him.

“Netanyahu is going to trial — we must move forward. Israel’s citizens have a clear choice: a prime minister who will work for them or a prime minister working for himself,” Gantz said in a statement.

Blue and White chief Benny Gantz speaking to reporters in Washington, D.C., January 27, 2020 (Elad Malka)

In a Facebook post, the premier denounced the “immunity circus” taking place while he was in Washington on a “historic mission.”

“During this fateful time for the people of Israel, while I am in the US on a historic mission to shape Israel’s permanent borders and ensure our security for future generations, another Knesset episode is expected to begin in the immunity circus,” the prime minister wrote.

“Since I was not given due process, because all the rules of the Knesset were trampled on, and since the results of the procedure were pre-dictated without proper discussion, I decided not to allow this dirty game to continue,” Netanyahu added.

The date for Tuesday’s plenum discussion was set before the premier announced he would travel to 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.

It’s unclear what Netanyahu gains by withdrawing his request, other than avoiding the spectacle of defeat in the plenum. 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.

U. President Donald Trump (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk to reporters along the colonnade at the White House on January 27, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)

Mandelblit in November announced his intention to indict the prime minister in all three corruption investigations against him. Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in all three cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He denies wrongdoing and has accused police and state prosecutors of participating in an “attempted coup” against him, orchestrated by the left and a hostile media.

In Case 1000, involving accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for favors, the premier is charged with fraud and breach of trust.

In Case 2000, involving accusations Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth, the premier is charged with fraud and breach of trust, while Mozes has been charged with bribery.

In Case 4000, widely seen as the most serious, Netanyahu is accused of having advanced regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site.

In that case, Mandelblit has charged both Netanyahu and Elovitch with bribery.

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