Netanyahu Claims to Seek 'Temporary Immunity,' but His Request Says Otherwise

In addition to asking for procedural immunity, which expires at the end of a Knesset's term, on some charges against him, the prime minister is seeking lifetime immunity

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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נתניהו, אמש במסיבת העיתונאים בירושלים
Prime Minister Netanyahu at his press conference on his immunity request, Jan. 1, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked the Knesset on Wednesday to grant him immunity from prosecution, and at a press conference said the parliamentary immunity that he is requesting will only suspend criminal proceedings against him until the end of the Knesset’s term, after which, he would have his day in court.

But a careful look at his request for immunity, from prosecution on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust, reveals that in some of the three cases, he is seeking lifetime immunity.

“Many of you think, because that is what they told you, that the immunity for elected public officials is granted forever, that it makes it possible never to face trial,” the prime minister said in a televised statement Wednesday. “Well, that’s simply not true. According to the law, the immunity is always temporary. It ends with the end of the term of the Knesset that granted it. If the Knesset serves only three months, the immunity ends after three months.”

The law on parliamentary immunity allows a Knesset member to ask for two types of immunity. Procedural immunity does in fact come to an end with the end of the term of the Knesset that granted it – even though it is possible to resubmit the request to the next Knesset. But there is also substantive immunity, which when granted by the Knesset, clears the Knesset member, in this case the prime minister, of the criminal charges. This type of immunity is absolute and not limited in time.

In his request for immunity, Netanyahu asked for substantive immunity in one of the three cases against him, dubbed Case 2000, and for portions of another case, known as Case 1000.

Netanyayhu’s request states: “Without getting into the facts alleged in Case 2000 and the extent to which they are true and accurate, the prime minister will claim that in Case 2000, he is entitled to substantive immunity against prosecution, because everything that is attributed to him in this indictment was done by the prime minister in his position as a Knesset member, to prevent the advancement of a bill.”

The cases against the prime minister

In Case 1000, the prime minister allegedly received lavish gifts from two wealthy friends – Israeli-born Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer – in exchange for political favors such as promoting the two men’s business interests or obtaining visas. Case 2000 centers around allegations that Netanyahu promised regulatory concessions to the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily in exchange for favorable coverage by the newspaper. The third case, Case 4000, involves allegations that Netanyahu made decisions benefiting media mogul Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder at the time of the Bezeq telecommunications firm, in exchange for positive coverage from Bezeq’s Walla news website. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in the cases.

His letter requesting immunity, he makes specific reference to substantive immunity, the type that does not expire. The letter refers to allegations of a conflict of interest in Case 1000 when the prime minister supported the extension of a tax exemption for Israeli citizens who return to the country after lengthy residence abroad. Netanyahu “acted legally – and in any event, he has substantive immunity in that in this context as well, the indictment alleges actions that the prime minister carried out as a Knesset member within the framework of considering the possibility of advancing legislation.”

In other words, Netanyahu is asking the Knesset to eliminate all of the charges in Case 2000 and major portions of Case 1000 – without any court hearing on the matter – meaning that he would never be tried on these charges.

In defining substantive immunity for Knesset members, the law states: “A Knesset member will not bear criminal or civil responsibility, and will be immune from any legal action as a result of a vote [in the Knesset], or for expressing an opinion orally or in writing, or due to an action that he performed, in the Knesset or outside of it.”

In the Case 4000 Bezeq-Walla bribery case, and the balance of the offenses of which Netanyahu is accused in Case 1000, he is requesting procedural immunity – which does in fact expire at the end of the Knesset’s term. But Netanyahu never mentioned that he is entitled – if he is reelected – to ask the Knesset House Committee to renew this immunity for the new Knesset term. Netanyahu did not say whether in such a case, he would again ask for immunity if he is reelected to the Knesset.

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