In a sign of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s growing anxiety over leading the country to an unprecedented third vote in 11 months, sources in his Likud party reportedly said he is considering announcing in the Knesset Wednesday that he won’t seek parliamentary immunity in his corruption cases if a government is formed.
The mulled announcement, which was not confirmed, would answer a key demand of the Blue and White party for opening unity talks, as the clock ticked toward a midnight deadline for making a deal to avoid a third round of elections
Netanyahu faces criminal charges in three corruption investigations, a fact that has figured heavily in the campaign of his chief rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.
In the wake of the April and September elections this year, when neither Netanyahu nor Gantz had a clear parliamentary majority for forming a government, Gantz has insisted he won’t enter a unity government with Netanyahu as long as the latter refuses to forgo parliamentary immunity.
The government “is not a sanctuary from the law,” Gantz has said.
Under Israeli election law, the Knesset has until midnight Wednesday to give majority backing to one of its members for prime minister, or it will automatically dissolve, with new elections set to be called for March 2.
Netanyahu has not yet announced whether he will seek immunity from prosecution, but is widely expected to do so. Likud aides close to the prime minister have defended the practice.
While no side has shown a willingness to budge as the country hurtles toward yet another vote, both Likud and Blue and White have tried to argue the other side is at fault.
Gantz on Wednesday charged that Netanyahu continued to refuse a power-sharing agreement only because of Blue and White’s refusal to vote in favor of immunity in his corruption cases.
His “use of the immunity law is out of proportion,” Gantz said.
In response, sources close to Netanyahu told reporters on Wednesday that the prime minister was seriously considering announcing today he would forgo immunity, “to show that it is Blue and White that is refusing unity.”
Netanyahu has spoken with his lawyers in recent days about the potential legal implications of such a move, according to the Haaretz daily.
Likud put out a statement saying Blue and White was engaged in “spin,” but it was not clear what it was referring to.
“A few more hours remain. If Blue and White agrees to apply sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and the settlements of Judea and Samaria [West Bank], it is possible to establish a government immediately and prevent elections,” the party said, repeating one of Netanyahu’s campaign pledges.
It’s not immediately clear if Netanyahu is actually eager to avert elections.
On the one hand, his polling numbers have slipped. A Tuesday poll by Channel 13 news showed Blue and White increasing its lead on Likud from the current one seat to four, while a plurality of Israelis (41%) say they would blame him for the new elections, compared to just 5% who think Gantz would be at fault.
At the same time, a new election grants Netanyahu de facto immunity from prosecution for several months.
The Knesset House Committee, which weighs immunity requests, has been nonfunctional amid the political impasse resulting from two inconclusive elections. Eyal Yinon, the Knesset’s top legal adviser, ruled last week that Netanyahu’s indictment must be delayed until the House Committee decides on whether to grant the premier immunity — which could only happen once a coalition is formed after the next election in March.
Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in 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.