Pressure mounts for Knesset to muster panel to quickly reject Netanyahu immunity

Liberman, whose party holds balance of power, joins calls to resurrect House Committee; but analysts skeptical PM bid could be rebuffed before March elections

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to deliver a statement regarding his intention to file a request to the Knesset for immunity from prosecution, in Jerusalem on January 1, 2020. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to deliver a statement regarding his intention to file a request to the Knesset for immunity from prosecution, in Jerusalem on January 1, 2020. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for parliamentary immunity from prosecution Wednesday set off numerous calls by his political rivals to resurrect the currently dormant Knesset House Committee and immediately reject his plea.

With the newfound support from Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu on Wednesday, Knesset lawmakers appeared on course to revive the committee that would torpedo the prime minister’s bid and set him up to face trial on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges.

Questions arose, though, over whether lawmakers could exhaust the proceedings and reject the immunity request before the March election, and it remained unclear whether Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a senior Likud lawmaker, could wield his parliamentary powers to obstruct the effort.

Liberman, whose right-wing party currently holds the balance of power should an immunity vote be held, vowed Wednesday to block the protection for the premier. Later, another member of his party indicated that it would join a push to convene a Knesset committee to discuss and reject the request.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman MK Avigdor Liberman participates in a conference at the Israeli Institute for Democracy, in Jerusalem, on November 26, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Blue and White and Labor-Gesher on Wednesday evening also called for the revival of the non-functional panel. Together with the Joint List and Democratic Camp, whose leaders have expressed support in the past for ousting Netanyahu, they appear to have the majority of lawmakers in the parliament to vote to revive the House Committee — and then shoot down Netanyahu’s bid.

According to the Knesset legal adviser, Netanyahu’s request must be weighed by the Knesset House Committee before it can be voted upon by the plenum. Due to the lack of a functioning legislature amid a year-long ongoing political deadlock, and with new elections set for March 2, there is currently no functioning House Committee to consider the filing.

In a legal opinion last month, Knesset adviser Eyal Yinon specifically ruled that the Knesset cannot be compelled to set up a House Committee to decide on immunity for Netanyahu, despite the charges against the premier. On the other hand, he also ruled that if the Knesset wants to establish the committee, there is no legal obstacle preventing lawmakers from doing so. Yinon said the committee could be formed if the majority of the Knesset supports the move in a vote.

Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon attends a Knesset committee meeting on June 6, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

He also said the full Knesset could not take upon itself to hold a vote on immunity without first having the House Committee consider the matter.

Channel 12 political analyst Amit Segal on Wednesday opined that there is no chance such a decision could be made before the March vote, the third round of elections this year, which will reshuffle the Knesset and reshape the support and opposition for Netanyahu’s immunity.

“The chance that a House Committee will be formed, that it will manage to debate it and make a decision — are zero. Immunity proceedings are a long, time-consuming process with lawyers… Before that, it must also discuss the immunity of [former welfare minister] Haim Katz,” he tweeted, referring to the former Likud minister who also faces criminal charges.

Edelstein to meet with Blue and White MK on issue

Edelstein, the Knesset speaker, is slated to meet with Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn, who is leading efforts to convene the panel, on Sunday, his office said late Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, Blue and White fumed that Edelstein was delaying proceedings to shield Netanyahu, after he refused to consider a request by Nissenkorn to call a meeting of the Knesset Arrangements Committee, which he heads, on Thursday to discuss the possibility of forming a House Committee to discuss a request by Netanyahu.

Edelstein had said he was abroad until the weekend, and wanted to meet with the Knesset’s legal adviser before reviewing such a request. The Arrangements Committee, which deals with procedural parliamentary issues such as the makeup of other committees, can only convene with a green light by Edelstein.

President Reuven Rivlin (R) and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on November 21, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Edelstein said he would meet with Knesset legal adviser Yinon early next week and then decide whether the Arrangements Committee should convene.

He later confirmed a meeting had been scheduled with Blue and White’s Nissenkorn for Sunday afternoon.

It was not immediately clear if Edelstein, a senior member of Likud, could — if he chose — continue to withhold his permission, thwarting the formation of the House panel.

The lack of a coalition has resulted in widespread Knesset dysfunction, with most committees unstaffed or engaged in power struggles.

The Nissenkorn-headed Knesset Arrangements Committee met on December 15 on the subject, in a hearing that quickly grew stormy. At the time, Blue and White demanded that the Arrangements Committee decide whether a House Committee will be created.

Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn seen at the National Labor Court in Jerusalem on December 5, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But Netanyahu’s party, Likud, has furiously pushed for the decision to be made by a new Agreements Committee jointly headed by Nissenkorn and Likud MK Miki Zohar — meaning that either of them could veto the formation of a House Committee. The meeting ended without resolution.

Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in three cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He denies wrongdoing and has accused police and state prosecutors of an “attempted coup” against him.

The indictments by the attorney general in November have been submitted to the Knesset speaker to grant Netanyahu a window to apply for parliamentary backing. The criminal charges will not be lodged in court until the prime minister waives his immunity request or after it is rejected, potentially holding it up for months.

Under a 2005 change to the Knesset immunity law, members of the legislature no longer receive automatic immunity from prosecution but must request it from the plenum when relevant. Netanyahu was apparently planning to base his petition on a clause in the immunity law that allows an MK to ask for protection from prosecution under the claim that an indictment has been filed in bad faith or while discriminating against the defendant.

The ask essentially sets up the upcoming March 2 election as a referendum on Netanyahu and his legal troubles. The Likud leader’s allies have presented the judicial proceedings as an undemocratic attempt to remove him from power and have begun campaigning on the idea of voting Likud as a way of protecting the prime minister from prosecution.

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