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Rivlin expresses surprise over Netanyahu request for immunity

President says that when PM agreed to take leave of absence as part of coalition negotiations, he understood that as an acceptance that ‘his truth will come out in court’

President Reuven Rivlin speaks at the Calcalist conference in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2019. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
President Reuven Rivlin speaks at the Calcalist conference in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2019. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

President Reuven Rivlin said Monday that he had been surprised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent request that the Knesset grant him immunity from prosecution in three corruption cases.

Speaking at a conference in Jerusalem organized by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily and the Ynet website, Rivlin said that after the September elections, when he formulated an outline for a potential unity government — which didn’t materialize — that would see a power-sharing arrangement between Netanyahu’s Likud party and centrist rivals Blue and White, he had understood Netanyahu would not seek immunity.

The president’s plan, which both Netanyahu and Gantz had said they accepted but evidently interpreted differently, entailed the premier taking a leave of absence if indicted.

“He asked when the leave of absence would begin, whether it was when an indictment is filed by the attorney general, or when a decision is made to file charges,” Rivlin said.

“Of course, from the moment the prime minister accepted the principle of taking a leave of absence, I understood he would not ask the Knesset for immunity, because he accepts that his truth will come out in court, and therefore he would want to promote the trial as much as possible,” he continued.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves a press conference in Jerusalem after announcing his intention to file a request with the Knesset for immunity from prosecution, January 1, 2020. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

“It became apparent to me that the plan no longer existed when I was asked to change it to allow the prime minister to not take a leave of absence, but serve for a year and then leave,” Rivlin said. “I said, ‘If that is how you understood me you probably never agreed with me, even though we heard publicly on every radio, newspaper and news broadcast that everyone agreed with me.”

“Trust in the judiciary is at the heart of our ability to lead democratic lives,” he concluded, apparently taking aim at Netanyahu’s complaints that the police and prosecutors were engaged in an effort to bring him down.

The premier’s announcement that he would seek immunity came after months or remaining evasive when questioned about his intentions on the matter. In once case he told Channel 12 during an interview “no way,” when he was asked if he would make any move to thwart his indictment.

But he ended up giving a speech last week in which he defended immunity as a “cornerstone of democracy.” Days later, he filed the request to the Knesset and repeated his claims that he was the victim of persecution by authorities, asserting that “immunity is intended to protect elected representatives from trumped-up charges. It was intended to ensure that those elected by the people can serve the people, according to the will of the people.”

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

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has vehemently rejected the claims.

“The allegations of trumped-up charges or attempted regime change are baseless and it’s unfortunate that I even have to say so,” he said Sunday. “There were no allegations of trumped-up charges and it’s regrettable that this is being brought up now. Everything will be clarified, at the right time, maybe soon… In the end, the claims will be clarified in the appropriate way outlined by the law.”

Mandelblit in November announced his intention to indict the prime minister. 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.

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 is partly basing his petition on clauses in the immunity law that allow 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, and/or that prosecution would counter the will of the electorate.

According to the Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, Netanyahu’s request [Hebrew] must be weighed by the House Committee before it can be voted upon by the whole 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 request.

But in a legal opinion released Sunday, Yinon said there was no legal impediment to lawmakers setting up a House Committee to decide on immunity for Netanyahu, assuming there was majority support for such a move.

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