Gantz’s Party Divided Over Bill to Block Investigation of Prime Minister

As newly sworn in government divided over legislation, Labor minister calls Netanyahu’s remarks blasting the justice system at the start of his corruption trial 'unacceptable'

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Benny Gantz at the new government's first cabinet meeting, May 24, 2020.
Benny Gantz at the new government's first cabinet meeting, May 24, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Kahol Lavan will debate the possibility of backing passage of legislation barring future criminal investigations into a sitting prime minister, the chairman of its Knesset faction, lawmaker Eitan Ginzburg, said Tuesday. 

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While such legislation would not affect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current trial, which began on Sunday, police investigators are still awaiting for the attorney general to decide whether an investigation into the prime minister’s investment in a steel company controlled by his cousin is warranted.

On Monday the Yamina party, which became part of the opposition with the swearing-in of a unity coalition government this month, said it would seek a vote for the legislation in the Knesset, and that it would apply only to cases where an investigation hadn’t already been opened. 

Ginzburg told 103FM Radio that while the party might ultimately support the legislation, he would oppose it personally. Opposition to the so-called French Law “was about the possibility of Netanyahu’s avoidaing standing trial. That won’t be happening. His trial has begun.”

A source in Kahol Lavan told Haaretz, however, that the party would work to thwart the leiglsation and use its veto power to prevent members of Likud from backing it should it be brought to a vote. 

Also Tuesday, new Labor Minister Itzik Shmuli criticized as “unacceptable” Netanyahu’s comments attacking the law enforcement system at the beginning of his trial.

Just before his trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust opened at the Jerusalem District Court on Sunday, Netanyahu gave a speech at the courthouse and assailed Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, former police chief Roni Alsheich and the police officers who investigated him. He called the trial an attempted coup.

“We unequivocally oppose [the comments],” said Shmuli, who along with the rest of his Labor party came under criticism for joining the coalition. “A major part of the responsibility we have in the government is to defend the institutions of the rule of law as part of the Kahol Lavan bloc,” said Shmuli.    

In his speech Sunday, Netanyahu had said: “They’re trying to topple me and the right-wing bloc. People in the police and the prosecution got together with left-wing journalists – I call them the ‘anyone but Bibi’ people – to fabricate delusional cases.”

Shmuli also criticized Netanyahu’s intentions to annex part of the West Bank, saying unilateral annexation conflicts with Israel’s interests. “In the end, in the context of annexation too, I think that our ability to delay, prevent or restrain this step is much greater from inside the government,” he said. When asked whether the annexation process would start on the date Netanyahu stipulated, July 1, Shmuli said he was not a prophet. “I want to guarantee that Israel will be a Jewish and democratic state.” 

On Monday, opposition leader Yair Lapid reiterated that Netanyahu was staging “an attempted coup,” though this time added that “the moment he openly incites people and tries to lead us into a civil war, he must not continue in office.”

“Netanyahu led an attempted coup yesterday,” Lapid said, speaking at a meeting of his Yesh Atid-Telem party’s MKs. “He tried to harm the police, the prosecution, the court and the media, and threaten his judges.

After his comment on civil war, Lapid said Netanyahu’s trial “didn’t begin with the presentation of evidence but with wild incitement against the rule of law. Netanyahu stood before the court and incited people. He knows this. That this will end in violence doesn’t matter to him.”

Lapid added that the ministers and MKs whom Netanyahu brought with him to court included “the ministers responsible for law enforcement and his representatives on the Judicial Appointments Committee. He has become a man without restraints.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid speaking at the Knesset, May 2020.Credit: Adina Walman / Knesset

Lapid also assailed the way his former political partners, Defense Minister Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, responded to Netanyahu’s speech.

“Gantz and Ashkenazi chose to exercise their right to remain silent yesterday. After their promises to defend the justice system, Gantz issued an order to his people yesterday not to attack Netanyahu,” Lapid said.

“A week ago, when they entered the government, they said, ‘We won’t accept an attack on the rule of law.’ Well, there’s a violent attack on the rule of law. What do you intend to do about it? Is there any principle that you’re actually willing to fight for?”

Opposition to head four Knesset panels

Meanwhile, the opposition has been preparing for the Knesset's usual activities to resume. Its members are expected to head four Knesset committees when the panels start their regular work next week, though the new government had initially planned to let it chair only one.

The government changed its course on Knesset committess due to criticism by the High Court of Justice.

The four committees to be led by the opposition include the State Control Committee, which is always chaired by a member of the opposition. They also include the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, an ad hoc committee on combating violence in the Arab community, and another committee that has not yet been decided on, probably an ad hoc committee.

The Economic Affairs Committee, which has traditionally been headed by a member of the opposition, will this time be headed by a Knesset member from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Opposition MKs said their parties would probably rotate among themselves leadership of their four Knesset committees.

MK Miki Zohar, the governing coalition’s whip, said he expected the composition of all committees to be finalized by Wednesday, letting them start work next week.

Also on Wednesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party is expected to bring an updated version of the so-called Norwegian Law up for a vote. The bill would allow some ministers from each party to resign from the Knesset and be replaced by the next person on their party’s ticket. The vote was postponed last week due to disagreements among the coalition parties.