As Wednesday night deadline looms, Netanyahu expected to request immunity

PM reportedly seeking low profile for move to avoid trial on graft charges, out of concern it could impact election campaign, be rejected by Knesset or overturned by High Court

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an event marking the 8th night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, on December 29, (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an event marking the 8th night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, on December 29, (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected Wednesday to ask the Knesset to grant him immunity from prosecution in the three corruption cases against him, as the clock counted down toward a midnight deadline for him to seek the protection.

Netanyahu has described his right to immunity as “a cornerstone of democracy.”

However, rather than make a public announcement at a press conference, as is Netanyahu’s preferred style for key developments, and was apparently his intention at the beginning of the week, he is seeking to keep a low profile and will likely reveal his request in a social media post, Channel 12 news reported.

Netanyahu and his aides are eager to remove the topic from the public agenda as quickly as possible, the report said.

The prime minister has told close associates he is concerned that making the request for immunity, which must be formally delivered to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, could impact his campaign for the coming March 2 elections, the Kan public broadcaster reported Tuesday. In addition, Netanyahu is worried that the Knesset may vote against granting him immunity or that, even if lawmakers approve it, the High Court of Justice could intervene and overturn it.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein during a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset, in Jerusalem on December 11, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A request from the Knesset for immunity is seen as unpopular among voters, even among many of the prime minister’s supporters. A poll published Sunday evening by Channel 12 news found that 51 percent of Israelis oppose such a move, while only 33% support it.

Netanyahu must announce whether he wants to seek immunity by midnight or automatically forfeit his right to do so. Though the premier is far from guaranteed to get a Knesset majority to support an immunity bid, merely asking for it will likely delay any potential trial by months.

Channel 13 television news reported Monday that Netanyahu has already formulated his request and informed Edelstein of his intention to submit it.

The unsourced television report said that Netanyahu wrote in the letter that he would be willing to face criminal prosecution, but only after he left political life.

He reportedly argued that trying him now would compromise the will of the electorate and harm the Knesset, since many of the witnesses in the trial are current lawmakers; that it would discriminate against him, since indictments haven’t been filed against other politicians; and that the charges were announced in “bad faith,” since Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit made his decision too soon after the pre-indictment hearing, and the process was marred by numerous leaks to the press.

Edelstein’s office immediately rejected the report, with a spokesperson telling The Times of Israel: “No request has been made.”

On Monday, Netanyahu’s staff invited the media to a live statement to the press for 8 p.m., only to cancel it just half an hour later. Netanyahu was believed to have planned to formally announce he would be seeking immunity.

It was not immediately clear why Netanyahu canceled the announcement, which came shortly before hundreds of his supporters gathered Monday evening at Habima Square in Tel Aviv to protest against the criminal cases and support his immunity bid.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a press conference at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem announcing his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, November 21, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu has long evaded questions on whether he will seek to avoid criminal charges through immunity. But in a Channel 12 interview days before the April elections, he clearly stated he would not make any move to shield himself from prosecution if charges were announced.

His request must by weighed by the Knesset House Committee before it can be voted upon by the plenum, but due to the lack of a functioning legislature amid an ongoing political deadlock, and with new elections set, the Knesset will likely only be able to review and decide on his request after a coalition is formed — if it is formed — following the March 2 vote.

Mandelblit in November announced his intention to indict the prime minister in three corruption cases. Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in all three cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He denies wrongdoing and has accused police and state prosecutors of an “attempted coup” against him. Mandelblit formally presented the charges to Speaker Edelstein 30 days ago, starting a one month-countdown for Netanyahu to request immunity.

In a related development, the High Court of Justice on Tuesday morning held a preliminary hearing on whether a lawmaker facing criminal indictment can be tapped to form a coalition. Ruling against the possibility of tasking an indicted lawmaker with forming a government would further complicate Netanyahu’s position. The court indicated its wariness on making such a fateful ruling during the election period and after concluding the session said that a decision would be handed down at a later date.

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