Knesset grants immunity from prosecution to former minister Haim Katz

Knesset members voted on Monday in favor of granting Likud MK Haim Katz parliamentary immunity from a criminal probe into charges of fraud and breach of trust, preventing Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit from filing an indictment against the former minister.

MKs voted by 62 to 43 in favor of one request by Katz arguing that he had carried out the alleged actions in “good faith” and as part of his work as an MK; and 63 to 42 in favor of a second arguing that he had already faced censure by the Knesset Ethics Committee.

According to the 2005 law on parliamentary immunity, “substantive immunity” — a form of parliamentary immunity that permanently blocks an indictment and not just while the accused is a serving MK — can be granted by the Knesset for actions the House Committee finds were committed in the legitimate fulfillment of parliamentary duties.

Katz was facing the charges for allegedly advancing a bill on corporate bond repayment pushed by a financial consultant who was a close friend and financial adviser to Katz himself, and which benefited him financially once it became law. Katz was also accused of concealing those conflicts of interest.

After Mandelblit’s August decision to indict Katz, the then-welfare minister resigned from the cabinet, adhering to a practice established in the 1990s with the court-upheld resignations of indicted cabinet members Aryeh Deri and Raphael Pinhasi.

Speaking immediately before Monday’s vote, Katz denied wrongdoing, defending his work on Amendment 44 as key to protecting small investors and claiming that he was facing “unfair accusations that have damaged me personally and professionally.”

Katz said that he had “never, not once, put my personal benefit above that of the public.”

He argued that the vote was not about him but about “Knesset members’ freedom to think independently, to pass laws, and to work, according to their conscience, for the good of the public.”

The vote was broadly along partisan lines — representatives of Likud, Yisrael Beytenu, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina all sided with Katz; while those of Blue and White, Labor-Gesher, Democratic Camp and the Joint List largely voted against immunity. In the first vote, on substantial immunity, Blue and White MKs Tzvi Hauser and Michael Biton were the only two abstentions, while during the second vote, Hauser joined those voting in favor and Biton abstained again.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, speaking during the plenary debate before the vote, said that the request for immunity, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s now-withdrawn request for immunity from prosecution in three corruption cases, was eroding public trust in the Knesset.

“We, Israeli Knesset members, are losing the public’s trust. We are in a third round of elections. Every Israeli citizen has given Netanyahu 2,000 shekels for these elections. We deliberate among ourselves, are preoccupied with ourselves, and look out for our own pockets. It isn’t good and it doesn’t look good.”

Gantz vowed that Katz’s would be “final such request deliberated by the Israeli Knesset.”

“The very fact that lawmakers deliberate their colleagues’ immunity requests lends itself to corruption and to the formulation of small interest groups that can potentially turn our parliament into a refuge for criminals,” he said. “After the elections, I will take measures to form an independent, professional, and representative committee. It will be composed of former Knesset members and won’t depend upon Knesset members currently in office. It will consider immunity requests, when necessary, as well as lawmakers’ wages.”

Likud MK Gidon Sa’ar, speaking during the plenary debate, argued in favor of granting immunity, saying that Katz had been fulfilling his role as a lawmaker and that immunity was needed “not in order to protect one person, but to protect the entire legislature.”

The indictment centered on allegations that Katz, while serving as chairman of the Knesset Labor and Welfare Committee from 2005 to 2006 and again from 2009 to 2013, advanced Amendment 44 to the Securities Law at the request of businessman Mordechai Ben Ari. The law stipulates that companies must repay bond debt to small bond holders before it repays controlling owners — an attempt to buck the influence of wealthy and powerful investors in order to help protect the interests of small investors. Ben Ari’s business represents groups of such small bond holders in several companies.

Earlier this month in a Knesset House Committee debate on Katz’s request, Mandelblit said that he had earned large sums of money by investing according to Ben Ari’s advice and even through Ben Ari himself. The attorney general argued that that relationship had created a significant conflict of interest in Katz’s advancing an amendment directly related to those investments, even if no money changed hands between them directly.

The attorney general told MKs that the misdeeds were not just in advancing the legislation amid an undeclared conflict of interest, but included “a variety of deceitful actions and misrepresentations that included deliberate concealment. This is fraud and breach of trust at the highest level.”

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