Netanyahu’s Request for Immunity Explained

On the first day of the new year, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, formally wrote to the Speaker of the Knesset, to request for immunity from prosecution following his indictment with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

In his letter, Netanyahu claimed the indictments against him were discriminatory and, dishonest and that legal proceedings against him would cause substantive damage to the functioning of the Knesset and representation of the voting public.

“To continue to lead to great achievements, I intend to approach the speaker of the Knesset in accordance with Chapter 4C of the law, in order to fulfil my right, my duty and my mission to continue to serve you for the future of Israel,” he said in a televised address.

Among those who criticised Netanyahu’s move was his main political rival Benny Gantz who said, “I never imagined that we would see the day that the Prime Minister of Israel would avoid standing before the law and the justice system.”

However, Netanyahu defended his request for immunity saying, “The law is meant to ensure that elected officials can serve the people according to the will of the people.”

So what’s next after Netanyahu’s request?

According to the current system, Netanyahu just like any other member of the Knesset does not enjoy automatic immunity. Instead, should the Prime Minister or any other member of the Knesset be indicted, a request for immunity has to be made through the Knesset House Committee, and the decision presented to the Knesset for a vote.

This is according to the immunity law which states that: “The Knesset will not make such a decision (concerning immunity) unless according to the proposal of the House Committee following a request brought before the committee.”

At the moment, Netanyahu’s request will remain in suspense since there’s no House Committee to consider his request following the dissolution of parliament in September last year.

Some lawmakers had earlier on suggested that the temporary Arrangement Knesset Committee formed after every election should consider Netanyahu’s request. But Knesset’s legal advisor Eyal Yinnon argued that an “Arrangement Committee cannot take on any of the legal powers given to the House Committee, because it is a temporary body with limited mandate.”

The absence of the House Committee also means that Netanyahu’s indictment charges cannot be lodged in the court at Jerusalem.

If a new coalition and a new government are formed after the elections slated for March this year, a House Committee formed as part of the broader coalition negotiations would then consider the request. If the House Committee rejects the request, then its decision would be final.

But if it agrees to grant him immunity, the matter would be presented to the Knesset for a vote. But still, even if Netanyahu is granted immunity, the Attorney General can file indictment again. At the same time Netanyahu could also ask for immunity again. It is a virtual circle.

Many analysts, however, believe that it is highly unlikely that Netanyahu will be granted immunity. This comes hot on the heels of an opinion poll which showed that 51 per cent of Israeli’s respondents opposed immunity while 33 per cent supported it.

Ever since charges against Netanyahu were floated, there have been concerted efforts by him and his allies to protect him from prosecution. In this regard, they had proposed controversial laws which they had hoped to pass in the Knesset.

One of the bills was to restore the immunity law to its previous state before 2005. The former law on immunity gave the Prime Minister and other members of the Knesset automatic immunity from prosecution. Also, in the instance that the attorney general wanted to lift immunity, then he had to make a request to the Knesset House Committee, which would then vote to decide the matter. The committee’s decision would then be ratified by a Knesset vote.

Netanyahu although supporting the bill, was forced to retreat following backlash from leaders across the political divide. Instead, he switched his support towards supporting another controversial bill that was to make it hard for the High Court to overturn legislation passed by the Knesset.

The contentious bill that was to be tabled after the formation of a new right-wing coalition was to give the Knesset the ability to override Supreme Court rulings in case the court realised that the Knesset legislation went against the basic laws of the state. It was said that Netanyahu’s manoeuvring that resulted in a second election was aimed at having the bill passed into law.

But with the second elections also ending without a clear majority, it meant Netanyahu couldn’t garner 61 members required to pass such legislation. It is now too late because legal proceedings have now began, and his only hope is that he wins the next election then get immunity from the House Committee and the Knesset.