Netanyahu's Hope for Immunity: An Uphill Battle Likely to Fail

With election in sight and draft indictment published, could coalition partners, who haven't been so keen on Likud's controversial bill, save the PM from corruption cases?

File photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, March 3, 2019.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Draft indictment against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, published on Thursday, has revived talks of Likud lawmakers' project to promote legislation barring criminal investigations against a sitting prime minister. As things stand now, it has only scant chances of making it through parliament, but the upcoming April 9 election might change that.

Hayamin Hehadash co-leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, said on Sunday his party wouldn't support any law that would prohibit indicting Netanyahu while in office. He told Israeli public radio he "generally supports" such a law, known as the "French Law," but not one that would apply retroactively.

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National Union leader Bezalel Smotrich took to Twitter to respond to former party leader Bennett. "We will support [it]," he said. Should Netanyahu be re-relected, "there would be a need for a law to delay his trial, to serve ... the public's will and best administer the state by the elected leader."

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This isn't the first time the bill provokes a rift among Israel's right-wing politicians. The "French Law," named after similar legislation in France, first came up for debate in 2017. As investigations into Netanyahu continued, Knesset member David Amsalem of Likud proposed a bill that would bring criminal cases against the incumbent prime minister to a halt, so that he can run the state without devoting time to his legal defense.

According to the bill's explanatory notes, there had been cases of prime ministers being preoccupied with investigations "into various offenses", including on matters that predated their terms in office. The proposal would only enable investigation into a serving prime minister for alleged crimes of sexual assault, violence, security or drugs, or if postponing the inquiry could harm national security or cause economic damage.

Amsalem also proposed to suspend the statute of limitations, so any investigation could resume when the prime minister's term ended. That bill also ostensibly wouldn’t have helped Netanyahu, as it stated explicitly that it wouldn’t apply to any investigations opened before its enactment. Netanyahu himself even said, “I’m not interested in any law relating to the investigations now being conducted against me.”

Nevertheless, that statement was made only after it became clear that the bill had small chance of enactment into law, as Amsalem and then-coalition whip David Bitan had been trying and failing to do so for a long time.

Smotrich supported it, but most of Habayit Hayehudi – which is National Union’s senior partner on the right-wing joint ticket – opposed it. Much of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party also opposed it, and Kahlon hinted that he would let party members vote their conscience, which would have sufficed to torpedo it.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked – then with Habayit Hayehudi, now with Hayamin Hehadash – said at the time that her party would support the bill only if prime ministers were limited to two terms, thereby ensuring that investigations would be postponed only for a limited time.

But Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon said imposing term limits on prime ministers would require amending the Basic Law on Government. And since the coalition agreement gave all coalition partners veto power over changes to Basic Laws, any coalition party could have vetoed Shaked’s proposal.

Likud ministers claimed at the time that their party never intended the law to pass, but were merely using it to divert media attention from the investigations.

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The outgoing Knesset never discussed the bill even though Netanyahu’s Likud party pushed for it, because some of Likud’s coalition partners were opposed.

Over the past few days, the possibility of enacting the law has arisen again, but its chances of passing remain slim. Recent polls predict that Netanyahu may not be able to form the next government, and even if he does, his coalition partners are unlikely to agree to pass the law, given the opposition of Bennett and Kahlon.

Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party opposes the bill, as do all existing opposition parties, while former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas haven’t voiced an opinion.