Political paralysis could put Netanyahu’s trial on hold for months

A coalition is needed to hold an immunity vote in the Knesset, and even then, he needs a majority to get it.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a memorial ceremony for the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem as Israel marks the 22nd anniversary of Rabin's killing by an ultra-nationalist Jewish assassin, November 1, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a memorial ceremony for the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem as Israel marks the 22nd anniversary of Rabin's killing by an ultra-nationalist Jewish assassin, November 1, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Two political countdown clocks started ticking on Thursday.
The first started after President Reuven Rivlin officially gave the Knesset, represented by Speaker Yuli Edelstein, the mandate to find a MK supported by 61 of his colleagues to form the next government. That is a 21-day clock: The buzzer will sound on December 11 at midnight.
The second started when Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit announced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Since then, Netanyahu has 30 days – until December 22 – to ask the Knesset to grant him immunity from prosecution.
Under normal circumstances, when an MK is charged with a crime, the attorney-general must submit a copy of the indictment to the Knesset. Then the MK may go to the Knesset House Committee seeking immunity. At that point, the legal proceedings against the MK are frozen and Mandelblit cannot submit the indictment to the courts.
The House Committee would then vote, and if it grants the lawmaker immunity, it must go to a second vote in the plenum.
But these aren’t normal circumstances, and a vote on immunity for Netanyahu is unlikely to take place in the next six months, putting the prime minister’s trial on hold.
There have not been regular Knesset committees in almost a year, since the 20th Knesset was dissolved in December 2018. We’re now on the 22nd Knesset, and the election was over two months ago, but there still is neither an opposition nor a coalition to decide who heads which committees, and who sits on them.
Thus there’s no House Committee for Netanyahu to petition. And, while that 21-day clock is ticking, there’s an opportunity to form a new coalition and set up the committee in less than 30 days. But now that we’re post-indictment, this seems less likely to happen than ever.
A very recent precedent tells us how this will work. Mandelblit charged Likud MK Chaim Katz, at the time labor and social services minister, with fraud and breach of trust in August. Katz had to resign from the cabinet, as all ministers other than the prime minister must do, and asked the House Committee for immunity from prosecution.
Since the Knesset was in the same state of limbo in August as it is now, the vote on Katz’s immunity has not taken place yet, nor has Mandelblit submitted his indictment to the courts.
So it looks like any progress on the legal front for Netanyahu will have to wait for there to be a coalition. If there’s a third election in March 2020, which seems likely, then that won’t be until April or even May – and that’s if a government is finally formed.
When there eventually is a functioning House Committee, there are four reasons for which Netanyahu can request immunity. The first is that the crime was committed while fulfilling his job as an MK. The second is that the indictment was submitted with bad intentions and or due to discrimination. The third is that the crime will not significantly harm the public interest, and the final reason is that requiring the MK to go through the criminal justice process will significantly harm the public interest.
In Netanyahu’s Thursday night speech, he accused the State Attorney’s Office of bias against him because he is right-wing, and he has said that the regulatory changes behind Case 4000 were for the good of the media market. It’s also likely that Netanyahu will be very distracted from the premiership during the legal proceedings. As such, he has plenty of legitimate reasons, according to the law, to ask for immunity.
Whether the committee agrees, however, is another matter.
It does not appear that Netanyahu has enough votes in the Knesset, in its current makeup, to get immunity. The religious-Right bloc that supports him has 55 seats, and the Center-Left has made it very clear that it opposes the move.
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, the political kingmaker these days, said in the past that he would have no problem working with a prime minister under indictment. Liberman had to resign from the Foreign Ministry due to corruption charges and was Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman until he was acquitted.
But at Thursday’s Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, he said that he hopes Netanyahu is acquitted. That seems like a very kind sentiment from the person who has done more to ruin Netanyahu’s political career than anyone else in 20 years, but an acquittal means that there’s a trial, not immunity from prosecution.
In the end, the 21-day clock until we find out if there is a government or not is running, but the 30-day immunity clock is stopped for the foreseeable future – and it’s unclear that there will be good news for Netanyahu at the end of it.


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