Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could pull his request for parliamentary immunity in the event that his chances of receiving it in a Knesset vote are too slim to overcome, Channel 12 reported Monday.
The senior Likud officials cited by the network said that Netanyahu is weighing the move in order to prevent handing his rival Blue and White party with the opportunity for a “victory photo-op.”
The Prime Minister’s Office, however, denied the Channel 12 report.
The leaders of Netanyahu’s right-wing, religious bloc are slated to meet on Tuesday for an emergency meeting on the matter, during which the sides will discuss ways to delay the proceedings.
Earlier Monday, lawmakers in the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee voted 16 to 5 in favor of establishing and staffing the key House Committee that will debate and likely reject the premier’s immunity request.
It remains unclear when the House Committee will be staffed, a move that requires a full plenum vote, and when the hearings will be held.
Blue and White is hoping that the committee will debate and reject Netanyahu’s request within three weeks, with time to spare before the March 2 election. Likud sources have said that they will try to delay the process by tying it up in court and with other challenges, hoping to push it past March 2, when a new Knesset will be voted in.
Separately, confidantes of the prime minister have been telling him that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein “stabbed [Netanyahu] in the back” by allowing the immunity proceedings to continue in the Knesset, Channel 13 reported.
The premier, in turn has reportedly responded by telling confidantes that he has purposefully avoided criticizing Edelstein directly and that he is confident the Knesset Speaker will prevent the House Committee from convening, the report said.
On Sunday, the High Court of Justice rejected a petition by the Likud party seeking an injunction against the Knesset legal adviser, allowing Eyal Yinon to release a ruling that the Knesset cannot block the formation of a committee to deal with Netanyahu’s immunity request.
The crux of Yinon’s ruling was that Edelstein, of Likud, does not have the right to prevent the Knesset plenum from forming a House Committee, the body that would consider Netanyahu’s request for immunity — and that is usually not convened in a transitional government.
Edelstein said he disagreed with Yinon’s legal opinion but would abide by it, angering Netanyahu confidantes in the process.
Netanyahu announced on January 1 that he would seek Knesset immunity from prosecution in the three criminal cases in which he has been charged, submitting the request hours before the legal deadline. But he had anticipated the matter would only be debated in the next Knesset term, after the March elections, by which time he would hope to have won a parliamentary majority.
Several members of the 55-MK bloc supporting Netanyahu will be on the House Committee panel that will debate the prime minister’s request, but will not have a majority.
The committee will have 30 members “to ensure representation for all factions,” said Arrangements Committee chair MK Avi Nissenkorn of Blue and White: eight seats apiece for Blue and White and Likud; three seats for the Joint List; two apiece for Shas, Labor-Gesher, Yisrael Beytenu and United Torah Judaism; and one seat each for the Democratic Camp, the Jewish Home, and the New Right.
That leaves the prime minister with 14 out of 30 votes.
Formation of the House Committee still requires a full plenum vote in the Knesset, which Nissenkorn said he hoped would be held this week. A majority of the 120 MKs, crucially including Avigdor Liberman’s eight-seat Yisrael Beytenu, have already declared that they support establishing the committee.
The prime minister and his supporters argue that the House Committee should not be formed because the Israeli government is in transition, and also because there is insufficient time before the elections for the committee to properly weigh the immunity requests.
Netanyahu, in November, became the first sitting prime minister with charges against him when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he would indict the prime minister for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Netanyahu denies the charges and claims he is the victim of an attempted “political coup” involving the opposition, media, police and state prosecutors.