Ad hoc legislative committee could stymie Israeli prime minister’s fight for legal immunity, bringing him closer to official indictments and trial
An ad hoc Israeli legislative body on Monday voted to create a formal parliamentary committee expected to reject Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s quest for immunity from criminal prosecution.
The Knesset’s Arrangements Committee had been tasked with setting the procedural guidelines for the House Committee, whose formation still needs to be rubber-stamped by the full plenum. Once staffed, it will schedule a timeframe in which to hear Netanyahu’s application.
According to preliminary reports, the House Committee will comprise 30 parliamentarians, 16 of them from parties that are on record as opposing immunity for Netanyahu – as long as he remains prime minister – in three criminal cases. As such, the prime minister’s request will almost certainly be denied, if not by the House Committee itself, which would immediately end the process, then in a subsequent vote in the plenum.
This, in turn, would pave the way for the attorney general to formally file indictments with the court that is to hear the corruption cases.
The prevailing question, then, is whether Netanyahu and his Likud party can keep the immunity process going for as long as possible, preferably until after the March 2 national elections, so as to prevent any binding decision before the composition of the next parliament is known.
“The prime minister and his lawyers will try to prove that there are already legal grounds for granting him immunity, the most important being a claim of ill-will by the prosecution,” Dr. Amir Fuchs, head of the Defending Democratic Values Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Media Line.
“There are other arguments that could be raised, but they would normally be applicable in cases of lesser [alleged crimes], and not for serious charges like fraud and breach of trust,” he said.
Netanyahu is also facing the far more serious charge of bribery in one of the cases.
“The Likud will therefore try to delay and delay, and there are legal [recourses] that can be pursued, such as petitioning the courts over and over,” he added.
One such petition, an attempt to block the formation of the House Committee, was dismissed by a court on Sunday.
Kobi Sudri, an expert in criminal law, agrees that the Likud will use all the legal tools and political tricks at its disposal to lengthen the parliamentary initiative.
“Netanyahu’s objective is to get as close to the election date and then claim that it is impossible to have a fair hearing about the [immunity] request,” Sudri told The Media Line.
“The Likud,” he continued, “will try to disrupt proceedings in any potential way – and this was already witnessed Monday.”
He was referring to accusations by Netanyahu loyalists that the Arrangements Committee chairman lacked the legal authority to move forward with the process. The loyalists staged a walkout during Monday’s session to show their displeasure with the proceedings.
“Even when the House Committee is formed,” Sudri noted somewhat wryly, “do not be surprised if Netanyahu suddenly has ‘very important’ meetings in the United States or Russia, or perhaps comes down with the flu. ‘All is fair in love and war’ also holds true for politics.”
Despite the clock ticking and the political deck seemingly stacked against him, Netanyahu, as he is wont to do, could still pull the proverbial rabbit out of a hat by somehow kicking the immunity can down far enough down the road to avoid a binding decision. If he were to then outperform expectations in the election and, along with his “natural partners” on the Right, garner majority representation in parliament, he could theoretically push through a bill to grant him special immunity before the courts can intervene.
In this respect, while legal precedent requires an Israeli prime minister to resign only once convicted of a crime and out of avenues of appeal, there is no law as to whether an indicted prime minister can be appointed to form an entirely new government. In response to a petition last month, the Supreme Court declined to settle this raging debate, describing the issue as hypothetical and needing attention only if the circumstances are actualized.
“There is no precedent for [what is occurring] – parliament has technically been disbanded, elections are close, and it is a prime minister, as opposed to anyone else, who is requesting immunity,” Sudri concluded. “Coupled with the fact that Netanyahu operates in such a unique way and that he is fighting not only for his political life but for his freedom, it is hard to predict the outcome.”
What is known is that Netanyahu will still be standing come Election Day on March 2, as he recently won an internal leadership primary by a landslide. But his confidence will surely be eroded if the Likud and its political allies no longer comprise the largest parliamentary bloc once the election is held – a distinct possibility considering the latest polls.
However, as the adage goes, winning changes everything, for if Netanyahu comes out on top in March, whether immunity is still on the table will likely be the mitigating factor in what comes next.
If the prime minister remains exposed, he will likely find himself on a collision course with the Supreme Court, which could intervene in the coalition-building process even at the risk of incurring the wrath of a large segment of the population that already believes the judiciary has overstepped its boundaries because its “elites” have it in for Netanyahu.
All these permutations seem destined over the next four months to crystallize into a definitive reality. For this reason, the parliamentary proceedings initiated on Monday might ultimately come to be viewed as the beginning of the end of the process that sealed the political fate of Israel’s longest-ever serving leader.
Then again, there could always be a fourth election to sort things out.