JERUSALEM — In the lead-up to recent Israeli elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly denied that he would seek legislation to give him immunity from prosecution in three criminal cases against him.
When asked what he would do if his political allies did so on his behalf, he was more evasive, distancing himself from their actions.
Late Monday night, that very scenario emerged, as Israel’s parliament announced that an “immunity bill,” filed by a Netanyahu loyalist, was among 200 measures slated for votes in the current session.
A draft of the bill says members of the 120-seat Knesset cannot be charged with crimes allegedly committed during their tenures in the chamber or before they won their Knesset seats unless a house committee and the wider body both waive the members’ immunity. Netanyahu is a member of the Knesset.
Alongside proposals to roll back the powers of the Israeli Supreme Court to overturn bills passed by the Knesset, the immunity legislation has drawn a sharp rebuke from Netanyahu’s rivals, including some within his own party, who accuse the longtime leader of sliding toward authoritarianism to avoid prosecution. Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, announced in February that he would proceed with the indictment process against Netanyahu on charges that include breach of trust, corruption and bribery.
The furor over efforts to shield Netanyahu from prosecution echoes the debate in the United States, where the question of whether a president can be indicted also has been contentious. Justice Department guidelines state that a sitting U.S. president should not be indicted; consequently, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III decided not to come to a determination on whether President Trump obstructed justice during Mueller’s Russia investigation. Instead, in his final report, Mueller laid out evidence on both sides of the issue.
Like Trump, Netanyahu says the allegations against him are part of a politically motivated “witch hunt,” and he denies them. But Israeli police deemed there was enough evidence against Netanyahu to refer three cases against him to Mandelblit, a former cabinet minister under Netanyahu who has indicated that he plans to proceed with charges, pending the outcome of a hearing in which the prime minister can present his defense.
Despite the allegations, Netanyahu’s Likud party eked out a one-seat victory over its main opponent in elections last month and has had a clear advantage in the task of building a coalition government, relying on its traditional right-wing and ultra-Orthodox religious partners.
Still, building a coalition has been no easy feat. Netanyahu has been granted a two-week extension beyond the 28-day deadline to form a new government as he bargains with potential coalition partners over ministerial seats, and legislative promises and demands. With ministerial portfolios doled out in exchange for support, Knesset members on Monday evening voted to advance legislation that would expand the number of cabinet posts, amid expectations that Netanyahu will announce an unusually large cabinet.
“We are on a slippery slope,” said Dan Avnon, chair of the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, referring to the immunity bill. “It would mean the house of representatives becoming an asylum for prospective criminals.” The legislation, as well as the proposal to curb courts’ oversight role, is “anti-democratic and undermines a parliamentary democracy,” he added.
A cartoon circulated online Monday showed Netanyahu and other politicians accused of corruption running toward the Knesset, which is marked with a “shelter” sign. The legislation would exclude traffic violations and criminal charges that result in fines, but it would allow immunity for any other criminal offense.
Miki Zohar, the Knesset member who submitted the bill last month, said it was formally lodged in the Knesset system on Monday night “to my delight.”
The bill would effectively reverse the current procedure, under which immunity can be granted to a Knesset member only if a house committee and the full chamber both agree. If the bill is adopted, Mandelblit could proceed with the prosecution only if he wins the approval of the committee, which Zohar is expected to head in the new parliamentary session, and then of a majority of the Knesset.
Speaking to a Knesset committee on Tuesday morning, Zohar denied that he was an “emissary” for Netanyahu and added that the Israeli leader had said he was not interested in an immunity law. Zohar also denied that support for the legislation was part of coalition-building discussions.
Many are not convinced. Gideon Sa’ar, a senior member of Likud with a fractious relationship with Netanyahu, broke ranks with his party last week to criticize the legislation.
“This legislation offers zero benefit and maximum damage,” he told Israel’s Channel 12. Michal Shir, a former aide to Sa’ar and a newly elected Knesset member, also has spoken out against the immunity bill. Both have said they have received threats online since doing so.
Former Likud lawmaker Benny Begin was also chafing at the efforts to grant Netanyahu immunity, telling Israeli television that “such a phenomenon is called corruption.”
The Blue and White party, which holds 35 seats in the Knesset, making it the second-largest in the chamber, plans a protest Saturday in Tel Aviv under the banner “Defense shield for democracy.”
“There is no reason whatsoever to bring out such far-reaching constitutional amendments in such a rush unless it was connected to the fate of the prime minister,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. He said the specifics of legislation intended to weaken the Supreme Court remain unclear but noted that without it, the immunity law will be “meaningless.”
“It is highly unconstitutional, and the court will override it immediately,” he said. On Monday, dozens of top lawyers gathered in Tel Aviv to protest those efforts.
“We don’t know how each of us here votes politically, and in our daily lives we are competitors, but we’re all gathered here today, united by a tangible fear that the rule of law and Israel’s liberal democracy are in danger,” Tzvika Bar-Nathan, a partner at Goldfarb Seligman who initiated the campaign, told the Times of Israel.