Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made a final decision to ask the Knesset to grant him immunity from prosecution in three corruption cases and informed Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein in writing of his intention, according to a television report Monday evening that was swiftly denied.
The premier has formulated his request and alerted Edelstein, Channel 13 reported.
The unsourced television report said that Netanyahu wrote in the letter that he would be willing to face criminal prosecution, but only after he leaves 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.”
Netanyahu must inform Edelstein by Tuesday or forgo the immunity process.
Earlier 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.
Laying the groundwork for his immunity bid, Netanyahu told Likud party activists at an event Sunday evening that seeking immunity from prosecution is not anti-democratic, but rather a “cornerstone of democracy.”
Speaking to supporters at a Hanukkah menorah-lighting ceremony at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said that within two days, he would announce his decision as to whether or not he will seek immunity from the corruption charges against him.
“The only immunity I am seeking right now is immunity from idle propaganda,” he declared, attacking the rival party Blue and White for “talking crap all day with immunity, immunity, and more and more immunity.”
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 are announced.
A request from the Knesset for immunity is seen as unpopular among all 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 in the coming days, 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.
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.
The centrist Blue and White party, headed by Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz, said in a statement Monday evening that “due to Netanyahu’s intention” to file an immunity request, its member Avi Nissenkorn had decided to call a Wednesday meeting of the Knesset Arrangements Committee, which he heads, to discuss forming a House Committee.
The matter is legally contentious, and led recently to mud-slinging and arguments whether the Arrangements Committee has the authority to form a House Committee during a transitional government.
Attorney General 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.
The prime minister’s plans come ahead of a High Court of Justice hearing Tuesday on whether a lawmaker facing criminal indictment can be tapped to form a coalition.
Netanyahu on Monday continued his campaign against a potential High Court decision to block him from forming a government, saying in a video published on social media: “Some are trying to drag the Supreme Court into the political arena, to slander and legally thwart my candidacy for the premiership.
“I cannot imagine that the Supreme Court of the State of Israel would fall into that trap. In a democracy, only the people decide who will rule the people, and nobody else. That has always been the case and that is how it will remain.”