Former Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is number two on the new, unified right-wing slate Yamina, said on Saturday evening that he would likely support giving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immunity from indictment in the corruption probes the premier is embroiled in if he stands at the helm of Israel's next government. (For the latest election polls – click here)
This statement is a departure from Bennett's previous remarks; earlier this month he said that he would only make a decision on the matter once he is aware of all the facts pertaining to the Netanyahu cases. Bennett, who spoke to Army Radio at the time, had said that "the decision to [support immunity] you can only make based on the facts and the data. Neither you nor I know the facts."
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He added that expressing his stance would be like a judge asked to form a verdict for a case he has yet to review: "If I answered differenly, it would be indecent," he said.
Last week Haaretz reported that associates of Ayelet Shaked, Yamina's leader and Bennett's political partner, had offered Netanyahu to let the ex-justice minister get a spot on Likud's list in return for Shaked's backing of a move that would grant the prime minister immunity. "Only she can bring Bibi immunity, she knows how to explain to the media why the immunity is justified," one of Shaked's intermediaries said. Shaked responded to the report by saying that if such statements were indeed made, they had not been issued at her behest.
Netanyahu, who is suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, has been acting in recent months to gain immunity from indictment. Initially, he considered changing an immunity law so that it grants him automatic immunity. Currently, Israeli lawmakers are required to ask a Knesset committee to grant them immunity through a special vote. In April, Likud lawmaker Miki Zohar proposed a bill that would revert the immunity law to its original draft, which was changed in 2005 and ruled that lawmakers get automatic immunity.
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Last month, the prime minister said that he has no intention of changing the immunity law in order to avoid standing trial: "No one is changing the law. We don't need to change it, and I won't need it at all," Netanyahu said. "There's no need because there wasn't anything and there won't be anything." He added that changes to the immunity law were not included in any coalitiona agreements that took place while he tried to establish a government after the April election: "It's all one big bluff."
A number of Likud sources who spoke to the prime minister were impressed that he considered asking the Knesset committee to safeguard his immunity according to the current procedure, which requires the approval of the committee and a Knesset majority.
Before the previous election, Netanyahu was asked by Channel 12 about his intention to advance processes that will prevent him from standing trial. He responded, "What? What are you talking about? The answer is no." He added that the facts themselves will dispell this idea, adding: "I didn't deal with this and I don't intend to deal with this."