Without Liberman, Netanyahu won't have votes to avoid trial

In blow to PM’s immunity prospects, Liberman says graft cases must go to court

Yisrael Beytenu leader says any parliamentary effort to shield premier from prosecution would damage public trust in the system; Gantz warns against violence at pro-Netanyahu rally

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman at a faction meeting in the Knesset on November 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman at a faction meeting in the Knesset on November 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman said Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must face prosecution for the charges against him in a court of law, signaling he would not support efforts for the Knesset to grant Netanyahu parliamentary immunity.

Without the support of Liberman’s eight-strong Yisrael Beytenu party, Netanyahu would be unlikely to gain the necessary backing from the current Knesset for parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

“I hope that at the end of this process the prime minister will come out clean as snow, but the only place for that to happen is in court,” Liberman said at the opening of his party’s faction meeting in the Knesset.

“I think the only thing that will be acceptable to the citizens of Israel will be a decision in court. Any other attempt to solve this in the Knesset will damage public trust in the system and the very system itself,” the Yisrael Beytenu chief claimed.

On Thursday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a Netanyahu appointee, announced he would charge the prime minister with bribery, breach of trust and fraud in three cases against him. The announcement marked the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister faces a criminal indictment.

The charges have not been formally filed, however, because Mandelblit must first wait to see whether the prime minister will seek, and gain, Knesset immunity from prosecution. Mandelblit formally told Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein on Thursday that he intended to charge Netanyahu; the prime minister had 30 days from that point to decide whether to seek parliamentary immunity. Netanyahu has not yet announced a decision, but is widely assumed to be seeking it.

Liberman’s opposition effectively blocks Netanyahu’s path to immunity in the current Knesset, giving the prime minister only the assumed support of his bloc of 55 lawmakers from right-wing and religious parties that have so far vowed to support him as prime minister. However, new elections could change the arithmetic.

Without majority support in both the nascent Knesset House Committee and the 120-seat plenum, Netanyahu cannot be granted immunity from prosecution.

Netanyahu on Thursday slammed the indictment, vowed to stay on and fight what he called “tainted” and prejudiced investigations, and accused police investigators and prosecutors of plotting an “attempted coup” to bring him down.

With the Knesset set to dissolve itself in 17 days unless a solution to the current political impasse is found, it could take months until Mandelblit is able to officially indict the premier.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting of right-wing parties at the Knesset, November 20, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Speaking before Liberman at the opening of his own party’s faction meeting, Labor-Gesher head Amir Peretz said he had asked the Knesset chief legal adviser to instruct Speaker Yuli Edelstein not to delay in forming the House Committee so that an immunity request, if made, can be debated.

Without this, “the stain of this indictment will remain in the Knesset for many more months,” Peretz warned.

Committees like the House Committee are generally only formed after coalition agreements are reached, as the deals usually involve how to divide up committee assignments.

If it plays out this way, only once a new coalition is formed — either over the next several weeks or, failing that, after the next round of elections that would likely take place in March — would a Knesset House Committee be able take up the immunity question.

Amid the ongoing political deadlock, Liberman also called on Edelstein and President Reuven Rivlin to take active steps to prevent third elections by lobbying MKs to accept a unity government.

“I ask that the Knesset speaker and president bring all the 120 MKs into a room and sit with them until white smoke comes out,” Liberman said.

Opening the Blue and White faction meeting, party chair Benny Gantz said that the only reason that Israel appeared to be heading toward third elections was Netanyahu’s goal of remaining in power as long as possible in order to fight off the charges.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“There are three reasons for us going to elections, that are really just one: bribery, fraud and breach of trust,” said Gantz, naming the specific charges being brought against the prime minister.  “A hundred and nineteen Knesset members do not want to hold elections. And only one Knesset member, Likud chairman Netanyahu, is dragging the entire country into costly and unnecessary elections.”

Referring to his rotation plan according to which the Blue and White chair would serve as prime minister for two years before Netanyahu would take over, on the condition that he has been cleared of all accusation, Gantz said, “The time has come to lift the boycotts and bans, and to sit down and talk about forming a government in Israel. A broad, liberal unity government led by Blue and White.”

After both Netanyahu and Gantz failed to form a coalition following the September 17 election, the country entered a never-before-implemented 21-day grace period in which a sitting MK who can gather together a 61-seat majority in the Knesset will get a chance to cobble together a coalition and become prime minister.

If no MK manages to get 61 votes by the end of the 21-day period, which concludes at midnight on December 11, the country will go to an unprecedented third election within 12 months. Netanyahu also failed to form a government after the April 9 race.

Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, November 23, 2019. Sign bottom right, reads ‘Investigate the investigators.’ (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Gantz also used his press statement to urge every effort be made to prevent violence at Tuesday’s’s pro-Netanyahu rally called in response to the indictment announcement.

“Tomorrow there will be a demonstration in support of Netanyahu, and it appears that he will attend. I emphasize that in a democracy, the freedom of demonstration and the freedom of expression are fundamental principles, as is the right of each person to express his or her opinion,” Gantz said. “However, I call upon you, the demonstrators, those supporting Netanyahu and those against, to respect our law enforcement institutions, to have regard for our state and, of course, to avoid violence of any kind.”

Speaking after Gantz, Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid accused Netanyahu of inciting violence in his efforts to denounce the indictments.

“Avichai Mandelblit has personal security. The state prosecutor, Shai Nitzan, has personal security. Taxation and economic crimes prosecutor Liat Ben Ari has personal security. They are facing death threats. There’s no question what the reason is. It’s clear. Netanyahu is inciting against them. They need security because otherwise his people will hurt them. That’s what we’ve come to,” Lapid said.

Lapid continued: “He lost the election. He has three serious indictments. He’s inciting to violence. In what country in the world could a person like that stay even one day in office?”

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