Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Wednesday, January 2, that he would seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution in three criminal cases he has been indicted in. The charges against him include bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu announced his decision in a political speech telecast live just four hours before the deadline for applying for immunity was to expire.
The request for parliamentary immunity could delay proceedings against him by months as the trial in all three cases cannot commence once the request has been formally made. Allegations against him include granting of political and regulatory favors in return for positive press coverage, and accepting lavish gifts from wealthy supporters. If found guilty, he faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for bribery, and three years for fraud and breach of trust.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing, calling the investigations against him a ‘witch hunt’ by the media and the left wing in Israel.
The request for parliamentary immunity will only be decided after the Israeli elections scheduled for March 2. As the last two national elections held in April and September failed to throw up any governments, the parliamentary house committee that approves the request for immunity before it is submitted to the full parliamenta does not exist currently. In the vote in parliament to decide on immunity, Netanyahu requires the support of 61 of the total 120 legislators in the Israeli Knesset. Until the vote, the attorney general of Israel cannot file the indictments against Netanyahu.
Benny Gantz, former chief of the Israeli army, and currently Netanyahu’s main political rival, while responding to Netanyahu’s announcement said that “Netanyahu knows he’s guilty,” and “Whoever thinks ‘there is nothing because there was nothing’ [a statement Netanyahu has repeatedly made regarding the charges against him] should not be afraid to face trial.” Gantz also accused Netanyahu of violating the civic principle which says that everyone is equal before the law.
In a related development, the Israeli supreme court on Tuesday, December 31, began hearings on whether an indicted politician can be chosen to form a new government after elections. As per Israeli law, Netanyahu is not required to resign as prime minister after being indicted. However, if the court decides that Netanyahu is ineligible to form the next government, he will not be able to become prime minister again. A recent opinion poll conducted on the subject of granting immunity to Netanyahu found that 51% of the respondents oppose granting it, with 33% in favor.