Poll finds 56% of Israelis oppose Netanyahu immunity bill

Other than Likud voters, majority of public think PM should step down if indicted

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at an event marking one year since the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, on May 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at an event marking one year since the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, on May 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A majority of Israelis oppose legislation that would grant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immunity from prosecution in the three criminal cases against him while in office, according to a poll published Tuesday.

According to the Walla poll, 56 percent of Israelis are opposed to such legislation, which Netanyahu is reportedly seeking as a plank of his planned new government. Thirty-three percent supported such a measure and 11% said they had no opinion.

The poll, conducted by the Panels Politics polling agency, found that 51% of Israelis think that Netanyahu should step down if indicted.

The results showed strong support for Netanyahu among Likud voters, even if an indictment is handed down. The poll found that 71% of Likud voters backed the immunity bill, and 80% said the prime minister should remain in office even if indicted. In contrast, just 3% of left- and center-aligned voters say Netanyahu should be allowed to stay in power if charged.

The poll surveyed 504 Israeli adults, and had a margin of error of ±4%.

Existing Israeli law already provides for the possibility of immunity from prosecution to all sitting Knesset members, including the prime minister, but Netanyahu, who is facing charges in three cases, is reportedly pushing for fresh legislation to grant automatic immunity and to prevent the Supreme Court from overturning it.

The immunity bill has become a lightning rod for divisions in the ongoing coalition talks, which have seen Netanyahu struggle to cobble together a new government after last month’s elections.

His efforts to pursue legislative immunity have drawn criticism from critics and legal scholars, who warn that such legislative reforms would place the prime minister above the law and erode system of checks and balances.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and then interior minister Gideon Sa’ar (L) seen at the Knesset on July 9, 2013. (Flash 90)

In recent days, three Likud MKs — Gideon Sa’ar, Michal Shir and Sharren Haskel — have publicly come out against Netanyahu’s “personal” immunity legislation, and former Likud MK Benny Begin savaged the prime minister for seeking to dodge prosecution.

On Sunday, sources close to the prime minister told The Times of Israel’s Hebrew site, Zman Yisrael, that Netanyahu has scrapped the idea of the new immunity bill in the face of mounting criticism.

Instead, the sources said, Netanyahu would make do with the existing immunity law as amended in 2005, and his aides were holding consultations with legal experts on the matter.

According to the experts, the existing law could apply to Netanyahu while in office, because the legislation takes into consideration how a criminal indictment would affect the Knesset or the functioning of the country.

Netanyahu is also expected to make use of the second clause in the law, which states that immunity can be granted if the indictment “has been issued in bad faith or because of discrimination.”

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.

The backtracking on the immunity bill from Netanyahu’s camp came amid an ongoing deadlock in talks between Likud and its potential coalition partners.

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

On Friday, Netanyahu spoke with Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman, who said last week that he was ending coalition talks unless Likud agreed to a series of demands he laid out. Sources quoted in Hebrew media said there was no progress during their talks.

Likud has yet to sign a coalition deal with any party. Last week, President Reuven Rivlin granted Netanyahu’s request for a two-week extension of the deadline to form a government, after the allotted 28-day period to assemble a ruling majority in the Knesset had expired.

On Monday evening, the Knesset is expected to approve the first reading of legislation that will cancel limitations on the number of ministers that Netanyahu can appoint, easing his room for maneuver in the ongoing coalition talks.

Netanyahu’s coalition-building deadline is May 28.

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