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Will the Knesset Speaker Be Loyal to the Country or to the Man Holding It Hostage?

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the Knesset, Jerusalem, April 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the Knesset, Jerusalem, April 2019. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Sitting in the driver’s seat, Benjamin Netanyahu ran Israel off the road two days ago. Four hours before the deadline, he submitted an official request to the Knesset for immunity from prosecution for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. With this one maneuver, the prime minister was able to freeze the legal proceedings against him until the request is formally discussed.

To avert this disgrace, the request must be discussed and rejected. However, by law, the only committee authorized to decide on the immunity application is the Knesset House Committee, which has not been convened since April. Worse, its activity is not expected to resume until at least after the election in March. And in his desperate attempt to avoid trial, Netanyahu is liable to drag Israel to a fourth or even fifth election.

Eyal Yinon, the Knesset’s legal adviser, stated last month that there is nothing to prevent the Knesset House Committee from convening at this time. In his legal opinion he wrote that if a majority supports the move, the committee could be formed during an election period. The good news is that Yisrael Beitenu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman announced that he would support the convening of the House Committee prior to the election and that his party would unanimously oppose the immunity request.

But Lieberman’s stated intentions and a majority in the Knesset in support of convening the committee is still not sufficient, for there is yet another obstacle that could stand in the way: As Knesset Speaker, Yuli Edelstein has the authority to block the Knesset Arrangements Committee from meeting, thereby blocking the convening of the House Committee and preventing it from discussing the immunity request.

This is Edelstein’s most important test as an elected official: Will he be faithful to his position as Knesset speaker, or will he be faithful to the man who has decided to hold the country hostage? Let us hope he remembers that the country comes before Netanyahu, and that the mandate given to him as speaker of the Knesset obligates him to make statesmanlike decisions for the sake of the entire public.

Should he choose, nonetheless, to use his public position to serve as a private shield for someone facing criminal charges, Edelstein will also be remembered as the person who helped Netanyahu plunge Israel into the deep legal and ethical abyss that it now finds itself in.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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