Knesset Speaker, in the Eye of Netanyahu's Immunity Storm, Under Pressure From Lawmakers

Right-wing leaders urge Likud's Edelstein to stall proceedings while Gantz's party wants a vote as soon as possible, as timeline becomes major issue in complex political and legal entanglement

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Knesset Speaker and senior Likud MK Yuli Edelstein in the Knesset, Jerusalem, December 11, 2019
Knesset Speaker and senior Likud MK Yuli Edelstein in the Knesset, Jerusalem, December 11, 2019Credit: Emil Salman
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Right-wing faction heads on Tuesday urged Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein to prevent the Knesset plenum from convening, in an attempt to delay the formation of a parliamentary committee to rule on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s immmunity from prosecution.

The speaker is the only official authorized to convene a session of the full Knesset during its pre-election recess, which is necessary to approve the composition of the House Committee, the body authorized to discuss granting immunity.

The Knesset launched the debate process on Monday, in an attempt to reach a decision before the March 2 election – and both Likud and Kahol Lavan are busy addressing the obstacles in the path to a final decision.

The Knesset Ordering Committee votes on proceeding with addressing Netanyahu's immunity request, January 13, 2020.
The Knesset Ordering Committee votes on proceeding with addressing Netanyahu's immunity request, January 13, 2020.Credit: ללא קרדיט

Eyal Yinon, the Knesset’s legal advisor, said the House Committee, must complete its task within a reasonable amount of time – which he did not explicitly define – before the election. Any significant delay in the process could make it impossible to hold a vote on the immunity before the election.

Edelstein, who is from Netanyahu’s Likud, has promised to act impartially and above politics, but he has also warned that holding sessions on immunity just before the election would not allow Netanyahu to have a fair hearing and would turn the Knesset into a political circus.

In a letter to Edelstein on Tuesday, Avi Nissenkorn, the Kahol Lavan MK who currently heads the Arrangements Committee, a sort of caretaker body that manages the duties of the House Committee until it is appointed, called for the vote in plenum to be held on Wednesday. Deputy Knesset Speaker Meir Cohen, also from Kahol Lavan, later joined the call.

In putting pressure on the speaker, Kahol Lavan has one major asset: A majority of MKs today would be happy to vote to replace him and appoint someone else, if necessary. It is in Edelstein and Likud’s interest to avoid his ouster, because an MK from Kahol Lavan would then replace him as speaker, a job that the newcomer would hold after the election – until a new speaker is elected. It is possible that Likud would prefer to allow a vote on establishing the House Committee, and focus its efforts on undermining the immunity hearings themselves.

In an almost amusing turn, Kahol Lavan could have a problem if it tries to replace Edelstein – because he would have to be the one to convene the Knesset to vote against himself. It is not clear what Edelstein would do in such a case, and it is possible that if he tries to prevent it, Israel’s High Court of Justice might intervene and order him to call such a session.

In order to delay the House Committee proceedings, Netanyahu and his lawyers could for example insist on calling an impossible number of witnesses to testify. The law itself leaves it to interpretation as to whether witnesses may, or must, be called to testify. Many MKs expect the Knesset’s office of the legal advisor will not allow witnesses to be called, and it is unclear how Netanyahu and his lawyers would react to such a decision. In addition, Likud could petition the High Court while the proceedings are underway over various issues, in order to delay the hearings and play for time.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting Nahariya after fierce storms and flooding, Jan. 8, 2020
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this month. For the first time, an Israeli premier will have to appear (personally or via attorneys) before a parliamentary panel discussing his request for immunityCredit: Rami Shllush

If the House Committee votes in the end not to grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution, he could still appeal this decision with the High Court. He will be expected to argue that the immunity process was unfair and the decision was made for political reasons, or that it ignores the justifications in the law that entitle him to immunity.

His fate will then be in the High Court’s hands. It could very well accept his claims. Kahol Lavan plans to take great care to ensure due process in holding the immunity hearings, to provide Netanyahu and his lawyers enough time to lay out their case, but with a strict timetable, to guarantee the process will not be rejected by the court – and to prevent claims the process was conducted improperly.

Comments