Gantz to start anti-Netanyahu campaign Wednesday night

Netanyahu has until midnight to make the request.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz will launch a negative campaign on Wednesday night, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to ask Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein for immunity from prosecution in his criminal cases, sources close to Gantz said on Wednesday.
Gantz will make a public statement during the nightly prime time newscasts, whether or not Netanyahu submits the immunity request by then. A full digital campaign on the issue will follow.  
Netanyahu has until midnight to make the request.
Ahead of the April election, Netanyahu ruled out taking steps to seek immunity in a live interview on Channel 12. But he is expected to reverse course by requesting the immunity, which is unlikely to be granted but could enable Netanyahu to postpone his trial, because there will be no Knesset House Committee to consider his immunity request until a government is formed.
The Knesset Arrangements Committee will meet on Thursday to consider appointing a temporary House Committee to deliberate on the request. But such a move will have no majority unless Yisrael Beytenu supports it. Blue and White officials said they had gotten positive messages from Avigdor Liberman's party, which previously opposed forming the committee.
“I hope that the prime minister will not request immunity – but if he does, we will deal with it then,” Liberman said at Tuesday’s conference of the business newspaper Calcalist.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein told the head of the Arrangements Committee, Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn, on Wednesday that he would only meet with Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon to discuss the legality of the sensitive issue at the beginning of next week.
Blue and White responded by accusing Edelstein of "shamefully trying to prevent deliberations on Netanyahu's immunity.
"We did not believe that the speaker of the Knesset would take advantage of his statesesmanlike role to make the Knesset a safe house for evading prosecution."
Meanwhile, a hearing was held before the High Court of Justice on Tuesday morning to discuss a petition asking that the court rule that Netanyahu, under indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, cannot form the next government. The hearing ended with no immediate decision.
Although the High Court announced it would decide on the matter at a later point, the overall feel of the justices’ questions to the lawyers was that they would very much prefer to stay out of the issue.
Chief Justice Esther Hayut, Deputy Justice Hanan Melcer and Justice Uzi Vogelman conducted the hearing.
Around 70 hi-tech officials have requested that the court rule on Netanyahu’s eligibility to form a government before the upcoming March 2 election, mainly due to the charge of bribery he faces in Case 4000, also known as the “Bezeq-Walla Affair.”
During the hearing, lawyers for the petitioners said the High Court had set a clear precedent when it forced Arye Deri to resign as minister upon indictment for bribery 20 years ago, and the precedent demands that the court do the same in Netanyahu’s case.
All three justices hinted that making a ruling now is premature and will only become relevant should Netanyahu secure enough votes to form a government. At that point, his candidacy to do so must be presented to President Reuven Rivlin following the upcoming election in March.
The justices hammered the petitioners’ lawyer, Daphna Holech-Lechner, to give them an example where the courts had been asked to make a pre-election declaratory statement about the status of a candidate before there was an explicit legal obligation to do so.
Hayut pointed out that in a prior High Court case, when it had fired three mayors who were indicted for corruption, the court still did not prevent those mayors from running for reelection since they had not yet been convicted and no law blocked them from running.
Holech-Lechner stood her guns on the idea that “irreversible damage” will be done to the will of the voters if some vote for Netanyahu now, thinking he is eligible to form a government, only to find out post-election that he was not eligible.
She also pleaded with the judges to draw a line by making clear that the country still has norms against corruption, stands for the rule of law and is not merely governed by Netanyahu’s supporters.
When Likud lawyer Avi Halevi emphasized to the court that it must respect “the will of the nation” to allow Netanyahu to continue to be prime minister, Vogelman interjected: “The Likud is not the nation" – it does not represent the whole nation.
The justices pressed Halevi and also Netanyahu’s lawyer, Michael Ravilo, to explain how they would be able to fix the situation post-election if, in fact, Netanyahu was elected but was also legally disqualified.
Ravilo did not deal with this scenario, but he said there could never be a basis to disqualify Netanyahu pre- or post-election, or at any point before he is convicted and exhausts all of his appeals.
Further, Ravilo said, since the Basic Law explicitly sets the deadline as the point when a prime minister can be forced to resign, all of the clever legal interpretations of judge-made law by Holech-Lechner were irrelevant.
The state’s lawyer said the issue was still theoretical and warned the court against jumping into a toxic political election season.
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit had made it clear before the hearing that he is not interested in personally being the hand that forces Netanyahu out of office.
He has made legal arguments protecting Netanyahu from being forced out on multiple legal grounds of attack, while postponing indefinitely analyzing whether the prime minister can form a new government now that he has been indicted for bribery.
Mandelblit has ruled that the issue can be kicked down the road because it is only theoretical.
Until Netanyahu is actually in a position where he has the support of 61 MKs – something that may never happen, and in any event is more than three months away given that a third election is imminent – Mandelblit said there is no reason to rule on it.
Rivlin told the Calcalist conference that “since the court is discussing what is soon to be my decisions, it is appropriate that I say nothing, although I think I already have an opinion on the matter. There are things here that need to be weighed properly. Democracy is the public’s wish – but the public has to make the right choice.”
“Elected officials should be protected from being ousted against the will of the people,” he said.
“This is the first time that an indictment has been filed against an acting prime minister,” the president said. “Unfortunately, we are at a time when people can use power in a way that is neither accepted by morality nor by the law.”