PM said set to nix immunity law, focus on High Court override to avoid charges

Senior Likud sources quoted as saying push for new legislation is engineered to generate outrage and ultimately secure support for Netanyahu immunity using existing law

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) is seen during a Knesset vote to revoke a law limiting the number of government ministers, on May 20, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) is seen during a Knesset vote to revoke a law limiting the number of government ministers, on May 20, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not intend to promote a new immunity law and will instead use the existing law to shield himself from prosecution in three corruption cases, while simultaneously advancing a bill limiting the High Court’s powers to prevent the judiciary from undermining his efforts, unnamed Likud ministers and other party officials were quoted by Hebrew-language media as saying Tuesday night and Wednesday.

Despite widespread reports in recent weeks that Netanyahu had decided to advance new immunity legislation, senior officials in the ruling party on Tuesday described those rumors as a strategic ruse designed to ultimately secure the coalition’s support for immunity for the premier using the existing law, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

The Times of Israel, quoting sources close to Netanyahu, had reported on Monday that the prime minister had given up on the idea of advancing a new immunity law and instead would make do with the existing immunity legislation.

The current immunity law requires a Knesset member seeking immunity from prosecution to get a majority in the House Committee and then in the parliament’s plenum. Likud sources were quoted by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily on Wednesday morning as saying Netanyahu could easily win a vote in the former, but would likely face more difficulty in the full chamber.

Despite efforts by loyalists such as Likud MK Miki Zohar to promote the new legislation, Netanyahu has reportedly concluded that it would do more damage than good since the maneuver is opposed by senior Likud members, including Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Gilad Erdan, and Gideon Sa’ar, according to the Haaretz daily. The prime minister also fears it will be seen by the public as going back on his campaign pledge not to push for such a law.

“Netanyahu is coordinating with MK Zohar and using the political outrage about the immunity law, despite him not actually intending to bring that law to a Knesset vote. Everything is only meant to quietly promote the [Supreme Court] override clause,” a coalition source was quoted by Yedioth as saying on Wednesday.

Zohar’s bill, which has been lambasted by the opposition, proposes that MKs be granted immunity from prosecution by default unless the House Committee — which Zohar chaired in the last legislative term and is expected to continue to helm in the 21st Knesset — votes to strip the lawmaker of that right. The bill would reverse the current system, in which MKs are not automatically immune, but can be granted immunity by fellow MKs.

Knesset House Committee Chairman MK Miki Zohar (Likud) leads a discussion on canceling the 2013 law limiting the number of ministers, at the Knesset, May 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to Netanyahu associates quoted by the Haaretz daily, the prime minister likely intends to push for the override clause, which lets the Knesset pass laws that have been shot down by the High Court of Justice. The proposal’s wording will make it difficult for the court to nullify a potential Knesset decision to grant the premier immunity, according to the report.

In February, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing, in three cases, dubbed by police 1000, 2000 and 4000. Charges include fraud and breach of trust in all three cases, and bribery in one of them. The prime minister denies all the allegations.

Full text: The criminal allegations against Netanyahu, as set out by Israel’s AG

Prior to the April 9 elections, Netanyahu gave mixed signals when asked whether he would seek to evade prosecution by means of Knesset legislation to guarantee himself immunity and to prevent the High Court from overturning that immunity. On one occasion, in a late March television interview, he dismissed the idea but then backtracked within seconds.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at conference at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan on March 28, 2019. (Flash90)

Speculation has swirled that, following his reelection last month, Netanyahu may use his victory — which his allies have touted as proof that Israelis don’t want to see him indicted — to advance legislation that would immunize him from prosecution as long as he remains prime minister. He has been reported to be considering conditioning entry to his new government on potential coalition parties’ support for one of a variety of possible legislative initiatives, including the change to the current immunity law sought by Zohar and/or a so-called French Law sheltering a sitting prime minister from prosecution.

On May 15, a Channel 12 report said Netanyahu had conclusively decided to use legislation to avoid prosecution for as long as he remains in office.

It said Netanyahu and members of his close circle had begun briefing Likud MKs “on how to market this to the public.”

Last month, Zohar launched a media blitz explaining his efforts to extricate Netanyahu from indictment in the corruption cases against him.

The ruling party’s dramatic election victory meant that prosecutors should reconsider pursuing criminal charges against Netanyahu, Zohar said, arguing that indicting a victorious Netanyahu would amount to subverting the public will.

Mandelblit said earlier this month that the results of the general election would have no bearing on his decisions in the cases against Netanyahu. And in strongly worded comments, the attorney general called allegations that the premier was being framed — such as have been made repeatedly by Netanyahu himself — “nonsense intended to delegitimize the law-enforcement system.”

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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