The Knesset plenum voted on Monday to grant immunity from prosecution to Likud MK Haim Katz. He became the first MK to win immunity from his peers in the 15 years since it became possible by law to do so.
The vote passed 62-43 with two abstentions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the MKs voting in favor.
The plenum was almost completely full for the vote, even though it came two weeks before the election and despite the fact Katz’s immunity will only be in place for less than a month until the next Knesset is sworn in on March 16.
Immediately after the vote, the NGO Guardian of Democracy filed a petition to the High Court of Justice to veto Katz’s immunity. It argued that the Knesset had overstepped its authority by interfering in Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit’s professional view of what constitutes a crime.
Immunity could only be granted if a Knesset member was acting properly within his authority, it said, adding that Katz was clearly acting with corrupt purposes, violating conflict-of-interest principles.
The Movement for the Quality of Government in Israel also vowed to petition the High Court to veto the immunity.
An indictment was filed against Katz for fraud and breach of trust. According to the indictment, Katz violated conflict-of-interest principles in his economic dealings with Equital Ltd.’s Motti Ben-Ari on several occasions and covered it up to obtain illegal economic gains for the two of them.
According to the indictment, Katz vocally supported a 2010 reform to the country’s insolvency laws that was specifically targeted to help Ben-Ari and Ben-Ari’s company – in which Katz also had large investments.
Katz told the plenum neither he nor Ben-Ari made a single shekel by supporting the reform. He said he made a mistake by not revealing his relationship with Ben-Ari before the vote.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz told the plenum if he builds a coalition after the election, he will form a professional commission that will deal both with requests for parliamentary immunity and MKs’ salaries.
“Someone has to deal with these sensitive issues, and it’s not us,” he said.
Earlier, at a conference of the Kibbutz Movement, Gantz said Katz’s immunity request would be the final one deliberated by the Knesset.
“The very fact that lawmakers deliberate their colleagues’ immunity requests lends itself to corruption and to the formulation of small interest groups that can potentially turn our parliament into a refuge for criminals,” he said.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel criticized Gantz’s statement, saying it was “like committing to a diet that only starts tomorrow.”
The special meeting of the plenum became heated when a Blue and White MK said it was wrong that the MKs were “dealing with the immunity of another coalition MK instead of health care.”
Likud faction chairman Miki Zohar responded by bringing up a probe of Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi that was closed by the attorney-general.
“If it’s not Bibi, they don’t investigate,” Zohar said, adding that MKs need immunity because they could make mistakes and need protection.
When Blue and White MKs heckled Zohar, Deputy Knesset Speaker Ahmad Tibi warned them: “If you don’t all calm down, we will take out our darbukas [Arab-style drums].”
Tibi was referring to a controversial statement by Blue and White MK Yoaz Hendel that among the Jews who immigrated to Israel, “some came here with a mentality of Vienna concerts, and some came with a mentality of darbukas.”
Netanyahu also initially sought immunity from prosecution in his criminal cases, but he has rescinded his request.
While the Knesset held the vote on Katz’s immunity, it postponed a vote on creating a special committee of MKs to deal with the coronavirus outbreak until after the election.
Yonah Jeremy Bob contributed to this report.