Opposition figures hailed Likud MK lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar for breaking ranks within the party and openly criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to pass a special law that would grant the premier immunity from prosecution while in office.
Sa’ar, who has butted heads with Netanyahu in the past and recently returned to politics to the prime minister’s chagrin, was slammed from within the party for his comments.
Netanyahu has reportedly been working to advance a bill that would allow him to avoid prosecution in three cases in which he is facing indictments, including one involving bribery accusations.
On Thursday, Sa’ar warned in a Channel 12 interview that “this legislation offers zero benefit and causes maximum damage.”
Yair Lapid, No. 2 within the Blue and White Party, Netanyahu’s chief rival, praised Sa’ar for having the “political courage to go against Netanyahu.”
“I support Sa’ar and call on all coalition Knesset members to join Gideon,” he said. “The immunity law will not just damage Likud, it will damage the State of Israel.”
Lapid, a former anchor for the news channel, hinted earlier Thursday about a member of the presumptive coalition switching sides when he called on Israel Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman to join an alternative government. Lapid said they would have 61 votes, despite the opposition and Yisrael Beytenu only having 60 seats together, but did not say who the last vote would belong to.
Ofer Shelah, another Blue and White MK, called Sa’ar’s comments “the first crack in the wall,” and predicted on Twitter that others would follow suit.
Izhar Shay, a freshman MK from the same party, said on Twitter that he understood from talks with senior lawmakers that “others will also act responsibly” in opposing the law.
In the interview, Sa’ar said that he “isn’t the only one who’s concerned” within Likud’s top ranks.
Likud MK Michal Shir, a longtime former aide of Sa’ar’s, downplayed the opposition’s excitement over Sa’ar’s comments and said the Likud party was one where “anyone can speak their mind without worry.”
Nonetheless, Sa’ar drew vociferous rebuke from others in the Likud party.
“Shame on you,” tweeted Likud MK David Amsalem, a close confidant of Netanyahu.
An anonymous Likud source told Channel 12 news that “Sa’ar is being sanctimonious, and again working to undermine Netanyahu.”
“It’s no accident the leftist media can’t stop embracing Gideon Sa’ar, because he doesn’t miss any opportunity to undermine Netanyahu and try to topple him,” another Likud official said.
One of the premier’s longest running and public spats is with Sa’ar, a former Likud No. 2, whose primary run for the Likud Knesset slate ahead of the April elections Netanyahu actively and openly tried to stymie.
Netanyahu has long clashed with popular Likud politicians he perceived as potential future rivals. The list is long and includes several activists and lawmakers who would eventually leave Likud’s ranks and go on to lead other right-wing parties that would sit in his coalition, including Jewish Home, Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu.
The immunity bill has become a lightning rod for divisions between the likely coalition and opposition as Netanyahu has struggled to put together a new government after elections last month.
Jurists, legal scholars and critics of the prime minister have warned such a measure would place Netanyahu above the law and could also remove important checks on the Knesset from the Supreme Court.
On the other side, the bill’s backers say the measure is necessary to keep the prime minister from having to deal with frivolous or politicized legal cases while trying to manage the country, and have blasted the Supreme Court as an undemocratic bastion of leftist activism.
Netanyahu indicated at several points while campaigning that he would not actively pursue legislation to grant him immunity.
Nonetheless, reports on Wednesday and Thursday indicated that he had decided to push ahead with the bid.
Sa’ar warned that “we told the public [during the recent election campaign] that we weren’t going to do this. I think a law like this will hurt Likud and won’t help the prime minister.”
Despite blasting the immunity law on Thursday, Sa’ar defended Netanyahu’s right to serve as prime minister while under indictment.
Israeli law allows a prime minister to remain in office until he or she is convicted by a court of a crime classified as bearing moral turpitude, and only when all appeals have been exhausted.
“There’s no question the law says explicitly that he can serve,” Sa’ar said, pointing out that voters want Netanyahu as prime minister despite the looming indictment, as evidenced by the results of the April 9 elections.
“The public, which knew about the suspicions and voted [for Netanyahu] even when it knew the suspicions, so I don’t think there’s anything there that prevents the prime minister from continuing to serve,” Sa’ar said. “I think [the voters’] democratic choice carries a lot of weight in this situation.”
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced in February his intention to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing, on charges of fraud and breach of trust in three cases, and bribery in one of them.
The prime minister denies the allegations and has insisted the investigations are part of efforts by the media and the Israeli left to remove him from power, with the support of a dishonest police investigating team overseen by a “weak” attorney general.