Benjamin Netanyahu to seek immunity in corruption cases

Benjamin Netanyahu (AFP)

Reuters  /  January 1, 2020

Netanyahu was indicted in November on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday said he would ask Parliament to protect him from prosecution in the three corruption cases he faces.

It is a politically risky move, but one that could delay criminal proceedings against him for months.

Mr Netanyahu was indicted in November on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

They were related to claims that he granted state favours worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media barons in return for gifts and favourable coverage.

He denies any wrongdoing, saying he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media and the left.

A trial cannot get under way when an immunity request is made. Mr Netanyahu announced the move live on television four hours before a deadline for an application was to expire.

He said the charges against him were politically motivated and he was entitled to Parliament’s protection.

“In a democracy, only the people decide who will lead them,” said Mr Netanyahu, who has likened the indictment to an attempted coup.

Under Israeli law, a legislator seeking immunity can do so on grounds including an argument that the prosecution is not acting in good faith.

Had Mr Netanyahu not filed the request by Wednesday’s deadline, the indictment against him could have been submitted to a court as early as Sunday.

Amid deep political deadlock, Parliament seems unlikely to decide the issue before Israel’s March 2 election.

Mr Netanyahu will need the support of 61 of its 120 legislators for immunity to be granted, the same majority that eluded him in attempts to form a government after national ballots in April and September.

If immunity is ultimately granted, entitling Mr Netanyahu to avoid trial as long as he is a member of Parliament, Israel’s Supreme Court is empowered to review the decision and strike it down.

Mr Netanyahu’s request gives more ammunition to challengers who portray him as an autocratic leader who considers himself above the rule of law, and who represents a danger to Israel’s democratic and judicial foundations.

His main rival Benny Gantz, a former armed forces chief who leads the centrist Blue and White party, said on Wednesday that the prime minister was “jeopardising the civic principle upon which we were all educated, that everyone is equal before the law”.

Recent opinion polls have shown neither Blue and White nor Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party will be in easy reach of a governing bloc in Parliament after the next elections.