Former minister Gideon Sa’ar became the first Likud MK to speak out publicly against a bill that would make Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and all lawmakers immune from criminal proceedings ahead of the premier’s planned pre-indictment hearing.
“There are others [in Likud] who are very concerned about this legislation and its significance,” Sa’ar said in an interview with Channel 12 News. “It is my responsibility to warn about this matter.”
The much-discussed “immunity bill” has yet to be submitted to the new Knesset, but an October 2018 bill by Likud MK Miki Zohar sought to bring back the pre-2005 situation, where all MKs are automatically immune from prosecution unless the Knesset votes to remove that immunity.
Though Netanyahu seemingly denied that he would pursue such a bill in pre-election interviews, Likud sources said earlier this week that it would be on the coalition’s agenda. The news came after Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit recommended earlier this year that Netanyahu be indicted on three counts of fraud and breach of trust and one of bribery, pending a hearing set for September.
Sa’ar, a longtime Netanyahu rival, warned: “This legislation does zero good and does the maximum damage... I think a bill like this will hurt the Likud, and it won’t help the prime minister.”
The Likud MK said that if, “God forbid the prime minister doesn’t succeed” in his pre-indictment hearing, he could ask the Knesset to grant him immunity, hinting that he would feel more comfortable voting in favor of immunity than to change the law under the current circumstances.
Sa’ar explained that the law allows Netanyahu to remain prime minister even if he is indicted.
“The public voted for him in the election knowing these things, and therefore, I think there is nothing stopping him from continuing in his job,” he stated.
“There is a reason we said before the election that we aren’t intending to do it,” he said. “I’m not sure we would have gotten the same level of support.”
A Likud source said: “There is a reason the left-wing media does not stop embracing Gideon Sa’ar. It’s because he does not miss any opportunity to undermine Netanyahu and try to bring him down.”
Meanwhile, coalition negotiations will reach their one-month mark on Friday with no agreements signed.
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman sought to moderate the tone of the talks, with a senior Yisrael Beytenu source saying Thursday that the party leader is “trying to lower the flames.”
Liberman and haredi MKs, mostly from UTJ, have been sparring over the airwaves, especially over the issue of haredi enlistment.
“We want to calm things down so that negotiations succeed, and we can talk about the matters at hand. We will do the maximum so there is progress,” the source said. “At the same time, we won’t give up our principles.”
In that vein, Liberman has instructed Yisrael Beytenu MKs not to give any interviews.
Additionally, he has agreed to the Likud’s requests to support the Norwegian Law, which allow a minister to resign from the Knesset and be replaced by the next person on the party’s list – but for the minister to re-take his or her place in the Knesset and for the newer MK to automatically be kicked out if the minister leaves the cabinet for any reason. He would also back canceling the law limiting the number of ministers in the government to 18; the government now being formed is expected to have 26 ministers, costing an estimated extra NIS 48 million annually.
Still, Yisrael Beytenu is maintaining its original demand to legislate the haredi enlistment law that passed a first reading last year, without any changes. The law stipulates rising annual targets for haredi enlistment in the IDF and economic penalties for yeshivas if those targets are not met.
“The haredim say they wanted to make minor changes. We oppose any changes, because we know there are no minor changes possible,” the source said, accusing Shas and UTJ of submitting “a whole megillah” of amendments to the Likud.
Yisrael Beytenu’s other demands include outlawing DNA tests to determine Jewish status; making all pensions at least 70% of the minimum wage; getting the Defense and Immigration Absorption ministries; and a more aggressive stance towards Gaza.
Meanwhile, Blue and White co-chairman Yair Lapid tried to tempt Liberman to keep his party in the opposition, in an interview with Kan Reka.
“If Liberman enters the government, he will have to compromise on pensions and, once again, the Russian public won’t get anything,” Lapid said, referring to Yisrael Beytenu’s demand to increase pensions for all, not just immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
“If he waits a few months, he will get 55 assured votes from us in order to increase the pensions as much as he promised,” Lapid said. “Together with us, we have 61 votes: a full majority.”
When it was brought to his attention that the expected opposition plus Yisrael Beytenu’s five seats make 60 votes, not 61, Lapid said he has another vote for his side, but would not specify which likely coalition MK would rebel – although Sa’ar has become a distinct possibility.
UTJ faction leader MK Yaakov Asher also seemed to be trying to tone down rhetoric around coalition talks, blaming the impasse on a “lack of trust” between Liberman and Netanyahu rather than criticizing the former.
“Our relations with Liberman are reasonable, but there are times that he tries to use us to improve his political position. He is not hateful,” Asher told Ynet.
Still, Asher added, “the Israeli public will not forgive a party that is to blame for going to repeat elections.”
The UTJ MK referred to the possibility of moving forward with a 60-seat coalition, meaning that it will be tied with the opposition. This would make it very difficult for the coalition to function. But it is possible, as long as at least one MK – likely from Yisrael Beytenu – would abstain or vote in favor of forming the government when it is brought before the Knesset.
“It’s a dangerous situation for the government, because Liberman can vote against it at any time and bring it down,” Asher warned.
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