Benjamin Netanyahu formally requested on Wednesday that Israel’s parliament grant him immunity from prosecution, just over a month after he was charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases.
Mr Netanyahu’s appeal came just hours before a legal deadline to request that parliament grant him protection from prosecution in three corruption cases.
In a nationally televised address, Mr Netanyahu said the immunity law “is meant to protect elected officials from tailored lawsuits, from being served political cases whose aim is to harm the will of the people”. He restated his denouncement of the charges against him as fabrications and said his request for immunity would allow him “to fulfill my right, my duty and my mission to continue to serve you for the future of Israel”.
Mr Netanyahu was indicted in November on three corruption charges in cases involving accepting gifts from billionaire friends and trading profitable regulations for media moguls for positive press coverage.
The prime minister’s request for immunity is expected to drag out the legal proceedings against him as the country heads to its third election in less than 12 months.
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, Mr Netanyahu’s main political adversary, delivered a statement quick on the heels of the his announcement, saying that “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”.
“Today, it’s clear what we’re fighting for,” Mr Gantz said. “Netanyahu knows he’s guilty.”
Mr Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and the first to be charged with a crime while in office, seeks a fourth consecutive term. But his legal woes and his inability to form a government after two inconclusive elections in April and September 2019, have left the country in a protracted political deadlock.
An unprecedented third parliamentary election is scheduled for March 2.
Requests for immunity are ordinarily heard by the Knesset’s House Committee, but in the absence of a functioning parliament after its dissolution last month, Mr Netanyahu’s request may have to wait until after a new parliament is formed.
If approved by the committee, Mr Netanyahu’s request would have to be ratified by the 120-member Knesset.
Avigdor Lieberman, a former ally-turned-nemesis of Mr Netanyahu, wrote on Facebook that his eight-seat Yisrael Beiteinu party would vote against granting the prime minister immunity from prosecution.
“The state of Israel has become a hostage to the individual, personal problem of Netanyahu,” Mr Lieberman said.