(January 2, 2020 / JNS) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Wednesday night that he would officially ask the Knesset to grant him immunity from prosecution in the three criminal cases against him.
In a nationally televised address just hours before the midnight deadline for submitting such a request, Netanyahu said, “In order to continue to lead Israel to great accomplishments, I plan to approach the speaker of the Knesset pursuant to clause 4C of the law, in order to fulfill my right, my duty and my mission to continue to serve you for the future of Israel.”
Netanyahu emphasized that the immunity would only be temporary, saying that he plans to “smash” in court what he called “the preposterous claims” against him once he is out of office.
“Immunity is always temporary. It is nullified at the end of the term of the Knesset that gave it. According to the law there is no way for anyone to avoid prosecution,” he said.
“The immunity law, is intended to protect elected officials from trumped-up legal proceedings, from political indictments the purpose of which is to impede the will of the people. This law’s intent is to ensure that those elected by the people can serve the people, according to the will of the people, not the will of the law clerks,” he added.
Likud ministers and Knesset members rallied behind the prime minister’s decision. Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Ze’ev Elkin told JNS, “It is the prime minister’s right to ask for immunity as allowed by the law.”
Netanyahu’s political opponents, however, strongly criticized the move. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said that the only reason Netanyahu is asking for immunity is because he knows he’s guilty, adding that voters now face a choice “between the Kingdom of Netanyahu or the State of Israel.”
Blue and White Knesset member Moshe Ya’alon, who served as defense minister for the Likud Party under Netanyahu from 2013 to 2016, told JNS that “tonight Netanyahu has taken Israel to an all-time low in values and ethics.”
Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman blasted the prime minister on social media before the end of the press conference, saying his party would not support immunity.
“Now it’s clear that the only thing which interests Netanyahu is immunity. He wakes up with it, he lives and breathes it during the day, and he goes to sleep with it. Israel has become hostage to Netanyahu’s personal, private problem,” wrote Lieberman.
At first glance, the prime minister’s request seems doomed to failure, since while his 55-seat right-wing bloc may support it, the remaining 65 MKs have made it clear that they will vote against granting immunity. However, before the issue can be brought to the Knesset floor, it must go through the Knesset House Committee, and since there is no functioning legislature due to the country’s political logjam, there is no House Committee. This means that the Knesset will only be able to review Netanyahu’s request once a government is formed following the next election on March 2.
Netanyahu’s hope is that the right-wing bloc will grow to at least 61 seats in the March election, so that if the new House Committee allows his request to reach the Knesset floor a majority will vote in his favor.
To prevent that from happening, Blue and White is working to try to establish a temporary House Committee before the election. Knesset attorney Eyal Inon has ruled that if a majority of MKs vote to establish a temporary House Committee, it can be done. But for this to happen, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who is a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, must agree to convene the Knesset Arrangements Committee which governs Knesset issues during an election—and Edelstein is in no rush to do so.
He will be meeting with Inon some time next week, and only then will he decide whether he will allow the Arrangements Committee to meet. Even if all the hurdles are overcome and Blue and White does succeed in convening a temporary House Committee, however, it is unlikely that the committee will succeed in bringing the immunity request to a Knesset vote before March.
The Knesset Immunity Law prevents criminal charges against any MK, including the prime minister, from moving to court until after he or she has had a chance to request immunity from the Knesset. Between the lack of a functioning legislature and the time a temporary House Committee will need, if one is even established, to deliberate on the prime minister’s request, the upshot of Netanyahu’s immunity request is that the prime minister will not face a trial for many months, at the very least.
If his request is ultimately granted, Netanyahu will avoid court for as long as he serves and potentially longer.
While Netanyahu claimed during his address that he was only seeking temporary immunity, according to the actual request his lawyers sent to Knesset Speaker Edelstein, he is asking not only for procedural but also functional immunity in Case 2000, as well as in aspects Case 1000. The difference between the two types of immunity is that unlike procedural immunity, which is temporary, functional immunity, which protects MKs from prosecution regarding acts committed in the course of fulfilling their parliamentary duties, is permanent.
Case 2000 involves an alleged quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yediot Achronot newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes, while in Case 1000 Netanyahu is suspected of granting political favors in exchange for gifts from wealthy friends in the United States.
During his address to the nation, Netanyahu said: “I plan to continue leading Israel for many more years to historic achievements which I am working day and night for,” adding that “goals we could once only dream about are now within reach.”
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