Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided conclusively to advance legislation that will ensure he cannot be prosecuted so long as he remains in office, and has begun briefing his Likud party’s Knesset members on how to “sell” the move to the Israeli public, a TV report claimed on Wednesday.
Having hitherto given mixed signals about whether he would seek to pass legislation in order to evade prosecution in the three criminal cases for which he faces indictment, Netanyahu has now taken the firm decision to push legislation to guarantee himself immunity from prosecution, the Channel 12 report said. The legislation has reportedly been discussed in the current negotiations on the formation of Netanyahu’s new coalition government.
Netanyahu and members of his close circle have begun briefing Likud MKs “on how to market this to the public,” the report said. They are being told to highlight the fact that voters reelected Netanyahu last month even though they knew all about the allegations against him, and that he should thus be empowered to see out his time in office and deal with his legal entanglements only after stepping down.
The TV report quoted what it said was Netanyahu’s message to this effect that is being conveyed to Likud MKs, in order for them to advocate on his behalf, as follows: “The citizens of Israel deserve a full-time prime minister. I’ll deal with my legal issues when I have completed my time (as prime minister). The citizens of Israel knew about my legal situation and elected me. If I was focused on my personal best interests, I’d manage my legal battle as prime minister and not as an ordinary citizen, but I recognize that this is not in the best interests of the state.”
The report said Netanyahu has yet to decide how wide-ranging the legislation to secure his immunity should be. He could seek to advance a version of the so-called French Law, under which a prime minister could not be prosecuted while in office, or try to amend existing legislation in order for immunity from prosecution to be automatically granted to all MKs. And he could back up such moves with legislation to “override” the Supreme Court’s authority to challenge a Knesset immunity decision — legislation that would be part of a constitutional revolution dramatically curbing the Supreme Court’s powers.
At this stage, the TV report said, Netanyahu had not made a final decision in this regard.
Amid earlier reports of his legislative plans, Netanyahu on Monday evening had railed at what he called “misleading” and “distorted” media coverage according to which he was seeking to nullify the Supreme Court’s oversight of Knesset and government decisions, but he also indicated that he thought the bench should not be able to strike down legislation.
A Haaretz report earlier Monday had claimed the prime minister planned to promote a bill that would allow the Knesset to ignore the court’s administrative rulings, and would also permit parliament to resubmit laws that have been struck down by the court in the past. It would thus prevent the court from overruling both Knesset legislation and government decisions, and elevate the latter above those of the judiciary. According to the report, the planned bill is to be included in a legal annex to coalition agreements and government guidelines.
In a Facebook post on Monday evening, Netanyahu wrote that he has always supported “a strong and independent court — but that does not mean an all-powerful court.”
“Misleading leaks and distorted commentary published by the media include proposals that are untrue. All this is being done to sow fear and prevent any changes, in an attempt to block the restoration of the balance between the branches [of government].”
He said such balance was “required to pass laws that have been struck down in the past, laws the public expects us to pass: the expulsion of terrorists’ families, the death penalty for terrorists and a deportation law for [African migrants].”
In fact, only the deportation of illegal immigrants has been blocked by the courts in the past. The other two bills have not yet cleared the legislative process, having been bogged down by various disagreements and difficulties.
There have been previous proposals to allow the Knesset to override High Court rulings to strike down legislation. But the new alleged measure would completely dismantle the court’s judicial oversight over both parliament and the cabinet. Specifically, the Haaretz report noted, the bill would prevent justices from ruling that efforts to shield Netanyahu from a pending indictment for corruption — whether through legislation or a government or Knesset decision — are unconstitutional.
Opposition politicians and judicial experts reacted with outrage to the report.
Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, who is likely to be the opposition leader in the upcoming Knesset, said “Such cheapening of the rule of law crosses a red line and we will not let this pass.”
Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg said the reported coalition agreement pushed by Netanyahu is a “clear violation of the law. A bribery agreement in broad daylight.” She also threatened to take the matter to the Supreme Court.
Speculation has swirled that Netanyahu may use his newfound political strength in the wake of the April 9 elections to advance legislation that would grant him immunity from prosecution as long as he remains prime minister, or seek to utilize existing immunity provisions for the same purpose.
He has been reported to be considering conditioning entry to his new government on potential support for an immunity move or for a so-called French Law that would shelter a sitting prime minister from prosecution.
Netanyahu has publicly given mixed signals about whether he will seek such legislation, though other coalition partners have been more outspoken in support of such a move.
Current law already provides for any MK to obtain immunity by a majority vote in the Knesset House Committee and then in the Knesset plenum. Until 2005, MKs were automatically granted immunity from prosecution, and that immunity could be lifted by majority votes in the House Committee and plenum.
The prime minister is a suspect in three criminal probes in which investigators have recommended graft indictments, including bribery in one of the cases.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced in February that he intends to indict Netanyahu in all three cases, pending a hearing.
The prime minister denies all the allegations and has sought to delay the hearing, which has been scheduled for sometime before July 9.
Netanyahu’s political rivals have warned that such a delay would buy him time to shore up his immunity from prosecution and stave off the indictment.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.