Why Netanyahu isn’t sure if he’ll ask for immunity

Political Affairs: Immunity means he won’t go on trial, which means he won’t be convicted, and that’s the ideal situation for Netanyahu.

MMUNITY? WHO, ME? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a point on Wednesday to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Lisbon (photo credit: PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/REUTERS)
MMUNITY? WHO, ME? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a point on Wednesday to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Lisbon
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Lisbon this week, and to judge from his public statements, he had one thing on his mind: Iran, Iran and more Iran.
But with the political situation at home careening toward a third election in less than a year, and a lineup of 333 witnesses announced for his upcoming trial, he surely has other things on his agenda these days.
One matter of relative urgency is immunity: Netanyahu has 26 days left to decide whether to ask the Knesset to grant him immunity, after Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit submitted his indictment to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Monday.
While the benefits of immunity for Netanyahu are a no-brainer, it could hurt him politically and would probably erase any chance of forming a unity government with Blue and White and avoiding a third election in less than a year.
At first glance, immunity is the obvious way to go. As long as he can get a majority of MKs to support him – which is far from certain – it’ll be smooth sailing from there on. It means he won’t go on trial, which means he won’t be convicted, and that’s the ideal situation for Netanyahu.
So why wouldn’t he go for immunity?
The coalition negotiations front looked more like a dead end than ever at the end of this week. But the talks that have taken place between the Likud and Blue and White have dealt with the possible rotation between Netanyahu and the latter party’s leader, MK Benny Gantz.
The Likud wants Netanyahu to go first in the rotation – even if it’s only for as little as six months – and then for the prime minister to be considered legally incapacitated and unable to remain in office during his trial, otherwise known as the “president’s plan,” because President Reuven Rivlin suggested the arrangement. This would require a change in law, as currently a prime minister can be considered incapacitated only for medical reasons, and only for up to 100 days before a new premier must be chosen.
As Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman said in a faction meeting on Monday: “The prime minister has not asked for immunity, and if he goes the way of incapacity, he cannot ask for immunity.”
Politically, immunity renders moot the question that Netanyahu’s opponents keep asking, how someone can manage a trial and a whole country at the same time. But that’s not the solution to the political puzzle Blue and White is looking for. Gantz’s party will not stand for Netanyahu getting immunity and avoiding his day in court.
A request for immunity would likely close the door on any kind of coalition in time for the Knesset’s deadline to give a mandate to form a government, which is next Wednesday – if that door isn’t already slammed shut.
Since there are only five days left for the Likud and Blue and White to reach an agreement, but 26 days left to ask for immunity, Netanyahu can have his proverbial cake and eat it, too. He can wait out the next few days to see if he and Gantz can enact the “president’s plan,” and if it doesn’t work, he can say he did everything he could to prevent an election, in an attempt to avoid the blame, and he can ask for immunity.
MKs in the Likud have been telling Netanyahu that he must ask for immunity for that reason, making the reasonable assumption that there will be an election in the coming months. With the prosecution planning to call 333 witnesses, his trial looks like it’ll be never-ending, and Netanyahu needs to give voters the impression that he will be able to govern.
The other benefit for Netanyahu if he asks for immunity is that, even if he doesn’t win the final vote on the matter, just the request will delay his trial by months, assuming that there is an election. Mandelblit may not submit his indictment to the courts until Netanyahu makes a decision, and if that decision is to ask for immunity, he will have to wait until the Knesset House Committee and then the entire Knesset vote on the matter.
Permanent legislative committees, like the House Committee, are not usually formed until there is a government and coalition. Knesset Legal Adviser Eyal Yinon said on Monday the Knesset may establish the committee if a majority of MKs vote to do so, and the Democratic Union jumped into action, asking Knesset Arrangements Committee chairman Avi Nissenkorn of Blue and White to set a vote. The left-wing party also pleaded with Liberman to vote in favor of forming the committee, but Liberman said he will not support the move.
MK Oded Forer of Yisrael Beytenu said on Tuesday morning that “even if [Netanyahu] asks for it on the last day, there is no point in forming the House Committee. Immunity is given for the current Knesset only. Therefore, this matter is meaningless.”
In other words, even if there was a House Committee and it gave Netanyahu immunity this week, it would no longer apply once the next Knesset is sworn in, which will be in a few months if there’s an election.
So, if Netanyahu asks for immunity, the request will almost certainly put his trial on hold for several months.
Whether Netanyahu’s request would actually get him immunity or not is another question. He does not have a majority in favor in the current Knesset, because the Right has only 55 seats, and Yisrael Beytenu, the swing vote, is not with him. Liberman said at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference two weeks ago that Netanyahu must have his day in court, and repeated himself on other occasions.
If there’s another election, then Netanyahu’s situation in an immunity vote could improve or worsen, but the request has value for him on its own. He has a big decision to make in the next 26 days.