Netanyahu Won't Try to Change Immunity Law but Will Go After High Court, Likud Sources Say

Likud associates believe the PM will focus on making it harder for the court to overturn legislation, while he mulls asking Knesset for legal immunity

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, May 20, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely not promote the new so-called immunity law, which automatically gives governing legislators immunity from prosecution, associates of the premier have said. 

Instead, the Likud sources assess that Netanyahu will focus on pushing legislation to limit the High Court's powers to override legislation passed by the Knesset.

According to the sources, Netanyahu is set to invest efforts in a legislative clause that is meant to enable the Knesset to relegislate laws that the High Court strikes down. The draft the prime minister wishes to promote is meant to make it more difficult for the court to cancel the Knesset's decision to grant him immunity. 

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A senior Likud official told Haaretz that "there is no significant difference for Netanyahu between the process through which he would seek immunity based on the current law and the way he would try to obtain it through the new version." 

The official explained that "efforts to promote the new law may get complicated and Netanyahu's public image could be hurt, because he promised not to promote this law before the election and [will now be seen as] walking back that promise."

The official said that Netanyahu asked him repeatedly over the past several weeks to promote the immunity law. "There is no doubt he wants this, but I think he understands that he may have to make do with the current mechanism," the official said.

A different Likud official said that the promotion of the new law could hurt Netanyahu's stature among his fellow party members, especially after several Likud faction members have publically expressed their disdain over the law during the election campaign and in recent days. 

Among the lawmakers who publicly dismissed the legislative move are Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Gideon Sa'ar. The latter said last week that the law Netanyahu promotes has "zero benefits and maximum damage." 

The Likud official said that "Netanyahu will require the support of his party in the upcoming tenure, especially in light of the indictments and the immunity he seeks. He can't afford to have a dispute with those who oppose the move."  

Netanyahu is facing possible criminal indictment in three separate corruption cases. The decision to file actual indictments is up to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and is subject to a pre-indictment hearing. The amendment would restore a rule, canceled in 2005, that automatically bestowed legal immunity on sitting lawmakers.

Likud MK Miki Zohar presented the new immunity bill to the Knesset late last month. Its wording is identical to a bill that Zohar had sought to promote in the previous Knesset and was stopped by Netanyahu.

Zohar was furious on Tuesday over reports that he had presented the bill only on Monday as part of coalition negotiations. “When they say that I submitted the bill just how, that’s no more than a baseless lie,” he told the Knesset. “Let’s tell the truth: The prime minister stopped the immunity bill in the previous term and said he didn’t want it. Over the past few days the prime minister has made clear that the law is not part of the coalition negotiations. I tried to persuade Netanyahu to advance the law in the previous Knesset and I’ll try to do so in the current one,” Zohar said.

Zohar’s bill, which Union of Right-Wing Parties MK Bezalel Smotrich is also working to advance, would restore the immunity procedure to the way it was before 2005. That law stated that an MK would receive automatic immunity from prosecution and in order to lift the immunity, the attorney general had to make a request to do so from the Knesset House Committee, which would then vote to decide the matter. The committee’s decision would subsequently be ratified by a Knesset vote.

According to the system as it stands now, immunity is not granted automatically to an MK. Rather, if the attorney general announces that he is filing an indictment against an MK, that MK must request immunity from the Knesset House Committee and subsequently from the Knesset.