Benjamin Netanyahu wants immunity that could delay his trial
If granted it will freeze his prosecution in three graft cases until a new coalition is formed — which he hopes to head
Jerusalem/Tel Aviv — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked parliament to grant him immunity from prosecution on corruption charges, blocking the start of his trial for months.
“Immunity is designed to protect public figures from being framed, so elected figures can serve the people at the will of the people,” Netanyahu said in a televised statement late on Thursday, vowing to “tear to pieces all the baseless allegations against me”. On Sunday, he called immunity “a cornerstone of democracy”.
Currently, Netanyahu’s request doesn’t appear to have majority backing in the Knesset, but by asking for immunity in the absence of a fully functioning government, he essentially freezes his prosecution in three graft cases until after a new coalition is formed and the legislature can consider his request.
He’s gambling on being the man who forms that coalition.
“He is counting on an election outcome that will change the current dynamics of the Knesset and create a majority for his request,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. Right now, Netanyahu “is pushing it down the line until April or May, maybe four to five months, assuming there will only be a third set of elections,” he said.
That might be an unfounded assumption. Israel is headed to its third round of voting in less than a year on March 2 following two inconclusive ballots, and polls show a similar outcome in election number three.
Immunity is not a popular concept in Israel, where the absence of term limits means an investigation could be delayed for many years. In 2005, parliament amended the law to strip legislators of their previous automatic protection from prosecution.
A survey for Channel 12 TV broadcast on Sunday showed 51% of Israelis oppose granting Netanyahu immunity, while 33% support it and 16% have no opinion. The poll of 507 people had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
Hundreds of immunity backers gathered on Monday evening in Tel Aviv to protest what they characterised as Netanyahu’s unfair treatment by the legal system. “Only the people will decide” whether he’s fit to serve, they chanted.
Netanyahu was indicted in November on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The charge sheet painted a picture of a leader who abused his position to take gifts from wealthy friends and sacrificed the integrity of his office to win favourable media coverage. Netanyahu and his followers say he’s the victim of a witch hunt launched by political rivals bent on driving him from power because they oppose his nationalist agenda.
Netanyahu’s main challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz of the Blue and White bloc, said he never imagined the day when a prime minister of Israel would try to avoid trial. “Netanyahu knows he is guilty,” Gantz said.
Parliament isn’t the only forum to consider Netanyahu’s legal woes. Israel’s supreme court has been asked to rule whether an indicted lawmaker can serve as prime minister. It adjourned following its deliberation on Tuesday without a decision.
Netanyahu says it’s up to voters, not the courts, to decide this question. In a video clip he posted on Facebook he said , “In a democracy, it is the people who decide who will lead it and no one else.”