After Public Outcry, Netanyahu Backtracks on Police Silencing Bill

Netanyahu has asked lawmakers to redraft the bill, which would bar police from recommending indictments, so that it does not apply to investigations against him

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 26, 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 26, 2017. Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayhu announced Sunday that he has asked lawmakers to devise a new draft for the police silencing bill so that it will not apply to the ongoing investigations against him.

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The bill, which passed its first vote in the Knesset last week, would restrict the police from issuing recommendations on the indictment of public officials after an investigation.

Netanyahu's announcement comes a day after tens of thousands of people rallied in protest on Saturday night in Tel Aviv against the bill and government corruption, and against the backdrop of growing criticism against the bill.

"Unfortunately, the debate over the recommendations bill has turned into a political weapon against an elected government," Netanyahu said in a Facebook post. "It is obvious anyway that the police recommendations in my case are meaningless," he wrote. "It seems they were decided on at the start of the investigation, leaked throughout, and haven't changed despite the clear facts presented time and time again – proving there was nothing."

Netanyahu noted in his post that he did support the law as long as it did not touch on his own affairs being probed by the police in two high-profile cases.

"The law is right and necessary, and now that it has been clarified that it had no connection to my personal affair, I expect all coalition members to support it," he wrote.

Following Netanyahu's message, MK David Amsalem, who chairs the Knesset's Interior Committee, said that he "respects the prime minister's request, although making him an exception to the law would now render this law personal. I will seek council with the coalition chair and with faction heads in order to make the necessary adjustments, in accordance with the prime minister's message."

Amsalem stressed that the law will be promoted even if it won't impact the premier. 

The prime minister's decision also coincides with the police interrogation of coalition whip David Bitan on Sunday on suspicion of bribery, money laundering, fraud and breach of trust during his time as deputy mayor of Rishon Letzion. Bitan has been a key player in efforts to get the legislation passed, which has been seen as intending to protect Netanyahu, who is currently the subject of two police investigations. 

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 Amsalem, who is Bitan's Likud Knesset colleague, called the latter's questioning by police on Sunday an attempt to harm the efforts to pass the bill. "What is happening here is a very serious matter," he said, and spoke of "a huge army" that includes the political system and the media, which he said have been trying "bring Netanyahu down."

Acknowledging the obligation of the police to pursue criminal investigation, he asked rhetorically what would happen if Bitan were sidelined by police questioning for two more days. "Someone here is trying to scuttle the legislation," he declared.

For her part, however, Israel Police spokeswoman Merav Lapidot, told Army Radio: "The investigation began more than a year ago, before Bitan dreamed about the [police] recommendation bill. There is no connection between the two."

Earlier on Sunday, Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin asked that the final two rounds of voting on the "recommendations law" be delayed by a week. Elkin's request, which he voiced at a meeting of cabinet ministers from the ruling Likud party, came among growing concern over whether a majority can be mustered to pass the bill. 

The Knesset's Interior and Environment Committee began a marathon debate on Sunday about reservations reagarding the bill lodged by opposition Knesset members.

Lawmaker Merav Ben Ari of Kulanu, a party in the government coalition, also raised her own concerns about the bill, saying that she would support it only if it doesn't take effect for another three months.

The opposition party Meretz has a long list of reservations that are due to be raised at Sunday's session. The party wants to strip the bill of its original content and require the attorney general to ask the police for its recommendations on criminal investigations of public officials, and require the police to publicly release recommendations.

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The opposition Zionist Union Knesset faction has also submitted a large number of recommendations. On Saturday, Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay called on the heads of the coalition parties to reconsider their support for the bill.

In the meantime, the provision in the bill that would punish police investigators or prosecutors who leak police recommendations that come into their possession is to be eliminated.

The Knesset Interior Committee's legal counsel, Ido Ben-Yitzhak, told the committee members that the final version of the bill would not create such a new criminal offense, even though it appears in a version that the Knesset voted on in an initial vote.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked opposed the provision, in part because it would require the attorney general to open an investigation into the leaks rather than giving him discretion on the matter.

The revised version makes it clear that a law already on the books barring the leak of information by a public servant will also apply to the leak of written police recommendations.

Speaking in Washington at the Saban Forum on Middle East policy, Shaked said the Israeli public didn't elect the current right-wing government to pass such a law, but rather to carry out ideologically-based reforms.

She said the energy invested in passing the bill may be misplaced, but  added that if the personal issue (presumbably hinting at Netanyahu's involvement) is put aside, the bill is reasonable in protecting the rights of the accused over the public's right to know.