Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman joined centrist leaders on Wednesday in forcefully condemning Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid for immunity from criminal prosecution and vowed to oppose it, drastically complicating the prime minister’s path to being protected from prosecution.
Netanyahu officially announced Wednesday night that he would ask the Knesset for immunity from prosecution in the three criminal cases against him. He made the statement in a nationally televised press conference, defending the decision and saying that he plans to continue to lead for years to come.
Liberman, whose right-wing party currently holds the balance of power should an immunity vote be held, vowed to block the protection for the premier, who is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Later, another member of his party indicated that it would join a push to convene a Knesset committee to discuss and reject the request.
“Now it is clear without a doubt. All that interested and interests Netanyahu is immunity,” Liberman wrote in a Facebook post shortly after the prime minister’s announcement.
“The State of Israel has become hostage to Netanyahu’s personal problem. He doesn’t care about left or right, religious or secular. The only thing that concerns him is a coalition for immunity. The rest is old wives’ tales. We, Yisrael Beytenu, will not be part of the immunity coalition. We will all, unanimously, vote against immunity for Netanyahu,” said Liberman.
The hawkish former Netanyahu ally broke with the Likud leader in May, when he refused to join a Netanyahu-led coalition over disagreements with the ultra-Orthodox parties. The dramatic falling-out precipitated the September elections, the second national vote in the year after the April election.
After the fall vote, and elevated to a kingmaker position after securing electoral gains, Liberman again refused to partner with Netanyahu unless he formed a unity government with Blue and White, a prospect that failed to materialize, resulting in the upcoming March 2 vote. Blue and White had refused to join up with Netanyahu over the criminal charges and his pact with religious and right-wing parties to negotiate only as a bloc.
The immunity announcement on Wednesday, hours before the deadline to submit a request, set up the battle lines ahead of the March elections.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz lamented the prime minister’s announcement, saying, “This is a difficult day for the State of Israel and a sad day for me.”
He also strongly denounced the prime minister for “endangering the notion upon which we were all educated, that every man is equal in the eyes of the law.”
“Today, it is clear what we’re fighting for. Netanyahu knows he’s guilty. Whoever thinks ‘there will be nothing because there is nothing ‘ is not afraid to face trial. So either there will be an extremist immunity government or a national government,” he said.
“It’s either the kingdom of Netanyahu or the State of Israel,” added Gantz, saying his party would work to convene the Knesset House Committee to strike down Netanyahu’s request.
Labor-Gesher leader Amir Peretz also swiftly denounced the prime minister.
“The Knesset is not a refuge for bribery suspects,” said Peretz. “We will work to form the Knesset House Committee to thwart Netanyahu’s plan to elude [justice] from being implemented.”
Few of the prime minister’s allies immediately offered their support for Netanyahu’s bid, though he did receive the backing of a vocal Likud loyalist and the far-right Otzma Yehudit party.
“The decision that the prime minister made is the most correct one,” said Miki Zohar.
Otzma Yehudit, which recently merged with the Jewish Home party, said the prime minister did not go far enough, urging him to advance the so-called “French law” that would see him fully protected from prosecution.
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’s request effectively freezes the criminal process against him until the Knesset rules on the matter — a process which, due to parliament’s dissolution last month ahead of new elections, could be delayed for many months.
The prime minister is far from assured of getting majority support for immunity. But failing to make the request would have meant the criminal process against him would immediately move forward.
His request must now by weighed by the Knesset House Committee before it can be voted upon by the plenum, but due to the lack of a functioning legislature amid ongoing political deadlock, and with new elections set, there is currently no functioning House Committee. The Knesset will thus likely only be able to review and decide on his request after a coalition is formed — if it is finally formed — following the March 2 vote.
Netanyahu’s chief rivals in the Knesset, the Blue and White party, are seeking to expedite the process. Party MK Avi Nissenkorn has asked Knesset Speaker Edelstein to swiftly call a meeting of the Knesset Arrangements Committee, which Nissenkorn heads, to discuss the possibility of forming a House Committee under the special circumstances to discuss Netanyahu’s request.
Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer on Wednesday said Yisrael Beytenu supports the establishment of the House Committee in the caretaker government to weigh the immunity request.
“Now, when the immunity request has been submitted, one must allow for the formation of all the committees — including the House Committee,” he said.
The matter is legally contentious, and led recently to mud-slinging and arguments as to whether the Arrangements Committee has the authority to form a House Committee during a transitional government.
Blue and White complained Wednesday that Edelstein was delaying the process, responding that he was abroad until the weekend, and wished to meet with the Knesset’s legal adviser before reviewing Nissenkorn’s request.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in November announced his intention to indict the prime minister in three corruption cases. Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in all 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.
In a related development, the High Court of Justice on Tuesday morning held a preliminary hearing on whether a lawmaker facing criminal indictment can be tapped to form a coalition. Ruling against the possibility of tasking an indicted lawmaker with forming a government would immensely complicate Netanyahu’s position. The court indicated its wariness on making such a fateful ruling during the election period and after concluding the session said that a decision would be handed down at a later date.