In Blow to Netanyahu, Knesset Panel to Commence Immunity Debate

Legal adviser's opinion says speaker cannot keep lawmakers from convening a panel on prime minister's immunity request, which most lawmakers are expected to vote against

Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on December 1, 2019.
Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP

The Knesset committee to discuss granting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's request for immunity in the three corruption cases against him may convene as soon as Monday, following a legal opinion issued by the Knesset's legal adviser.

Eyal Yinon, the Knesset’s legal adviser, issued a legal opinion Sunday saying that Speaker Yuli Edelstein cannot veto the convening of the Knesset House Committee.

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Most lawmakers are expected to vote against granting immunity to Netanyahu, who has been indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz said he had told party colleague Avi Nissenkorn, who chairs the Organizing Committee, to convene the committee as soon as possible and establish the House Committee to discuss the immunity request.

Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said he disagreed with Yinon’s opinion and that he would not help make the Knesset “the site of cheap election propaganda.” Edelstein added that he could not promise that a fair process would take place, and claiming that there was a “conflict of interest” in the proceedings. 

Yinon’s opinion said he had determined that Edelstein cannot prevent a meeting of the panel that organizes the establishment of the various Knesset committees, known as the Organizing Committee.

He also said that if the Knesset’s Organizing Committee formulates a proposal for the makeup of the permanent Knesset committees, the government or 25 lawmakers can request that the full Knesset meet, “and the Knesset speaker must grant this request.”

Yuli Edelstein in the Knesset on January 12, 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

According to his opinion, restrictions on Knesset committee’s activities during an election campaign were created to prevent parties from taking advantage of committee sessions for the purpose of election propaganda. However,he wrote, “regarding discussions whose subject is conducting intra-parliamentary proceedings required by the law, the Knesset speaker’s judgment is significantly diminished.”

Yinon’s legal opinion sets a precedent because never before has a majority of lawmakers demanded that a process take place when there is no legal impediment to the process to begin with, while the Knesset speaker, who was not elected to his position in the current Knesset, seeks to impose the minority opinion by means of a veto.

On Sunday, Likud petitioned the High Court of Justice against Yinon, claiming that he has a conflict of interest because his wife, Deputy Attorney General Amit Merari, was involved in formulating the indictments against Netanyahu. Likud wants the High Court to void Yinon’s opinion and instruct him to continue to examine the issue. 

Over Likud’s objections, the court approved publication of Yinon’s opinion on Sunday. Yinon has until Wednesday to respond to Likud’s petition. 

Likud officials have harshly criticized Yinon over the past few days because of his association with Merari and the fact that he is on the list of witnesses for the prosecution in the cases against Netanyahu.

In response to a query from Justice Minister Amir Ohana, Yinon said he is not working on the cases against Netanyahu, and has not discussed them with Merari. He added that her work does not involve his decision regarding the convening of the House Committee. 

Attorney General Amichai Mendelblit said that Yinon’s testimony in the cases is not substantive.

Last week, Yinon stated that the Knesset could discuss immunity for Netanyahu, but was not required to, and thus turned the decision over to Edelstein. By law, because the House Committee was not established after the last elections, only the Knesset speaker can approve its meeting. Following Yinon’s first decision, Edelstein then asked for another opinion as to whether the Knesset speaker can block such a meeting.

In his previous legal opinion, Yinon stated that the committee should not meet on a date close to Election Day, March 2, because there would not be enough time to complete the discussion before the election. However, he did not give a precise cutoff date.

Before the previous election, Edelstein had to decide whether the Knesset could pass a law on cameras in the polling places could be passed while the Knesset is not in session. In that case, Edelstein supported the position of most of the Knesset, and so Yinon was not asked for a legal opinion.