Netanyahu drops request for immunity on corruption charges

Israeli prime minister says he is withdrawing his bid for immunity hours before Knesset due to hold debate.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office
Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel's longest-serving prime minister [Reuters]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is withdrawing his bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution on corruption charges, paving the way for a trial to begin.

Israel’s longest-serving prime minister issued a statement on Facebook on Tuesday saying the immunity proceedings in parliament would have been a “circus” and he did not want to take part in a “dirty game”.

“I informed the Knesset speaker that I am withdrawing my immunity request,” Netanyahu said.

Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, had been set to convene to discuss the formation of a committee to debate the prime minister’s request for immunity from prosecution on Tuesday.

The Knesset was widely expected to reject the request, which would have dealt Netanyahu a blow ahead of a parliamentary election scheduled for March 2 – the third national vote in less than a year. Netanyahu’s Likud party was planning to boycott the session.

His retraction paves the way for legal proceedings against him to go forward. A trial could take months or years and the 70-year-old leader is under no legal obligation to resign.

Netanyahu was indicted in November on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust over allegations 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 political left aiming to remove a popular right-wing leader.

The prime minister’s political opponents made his legal troubles a focus of their campaigns in the previous two elections last year.

Netanyahu hates to be the loser

The prime minister’s chief rival Benny Gantz, who leads the Blue and White party, said in a statement: “Netanyahu is going to trial – we must go forward.”

“Nobody could run a country and simultaneously manage three serious criminal charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust,” he added.

Akiva Eldar, an Israeli columnist at Al-Monitor, said Netanyahu had no choice but to withdraw his immunity request as he lacked sufficient support in parliament.

“Netanyahu hates to be the loser. He wanted the immunity and he wasn’t able to get it. He stood no chance. He doesn’t have a majority in the Knesset to get the immunity,” Eldar said.

The Knesset was still expected to assemble despite Netanyahu’s withdrawal of his request to form the committee, which will also address former welfare minister Haim Katz’s request for immunity from prosecution in his own corruption cases.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List of Arab parties in the Israeli parliament, said “the path to trial is paved and no diplomatic public relations stunt in the world” would prevent him from being brought to justice.

Netanyahu is currently in Washington, DC, where he is scheduled to meet US President Donald Trump later on Tuesday at the White House, for the announcement of Trump’s plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians have already rejected the plan.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies