JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday said he will seek immunity from criminal prosecution in three corruption cases dealing with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
The announcement came in a rambling 11-minute press conference carried live on Israel television. Netanyahu insisted that the immunity would be temporary, lasting only as long as the Knesset that grants it stays in office.
According to Israeli law, a prime minister or Knesset member can ask for immunity, although it is rarely done.
Netanyahu was charged in three separate cases with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. In one case, he is accused of accepting valuable gifts from friends and acquaintances of cigars, champagne and jewelry. In the most serious case, which has become known as Case 4,000, Netanyahu allegedly promoted regulations that benefited the Israeli telecom giant Bezeq in exchange for favorable press coverage.
Earlier statements on immunity
“I intend to go to court to crush the fabricated tales against me,” Netanyahu said. “The immunity law is meant to protect public representatives from being framed. The law is meant to ensure that public representatives can serve the people according to the will of the people, and not the will of some clerks.”
The announcement, which had been expected, contradicts Netanyahu statements from recent months that he would not seek immunity and intended to prove his innocence in court. It also comes as Israel is at the beginning of its third election campaign in a year after neither Netanyahu nor rival Benny Gantz of the Kahol Lavan party was able to form a majority coalition with 61 out of 120 members of the Knesset.
Netanyahu’s request must first be considered by the Knesset House Committee, which deals with administrative issues, and then voted on by the whole Knesset. However, the current, outgoing Knesset has not formed a House Committee and is not expected to do so before the March elections. That means that Netanyahu’s request for immunity cannot be dealt with until after the March 2 election.
Netanyahu last week won an overwhelming victory in his Likud party’s primaries. He has been Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and in office continuously for more than a decade. The immunity request means he can conduct this latest election campaign without dealing with his upcoming trial.
“I intend to lead Israel for many years to come,” Netanyahu said.
Gantz, Lieberman opposed
Within minutes of the announcement, Gantz lambasted Netanyahu’s repeated statement during the last election campaign that “there will be nothing because there was nothing,” meaning the police would not find enough evidence against him to charge him.
“Netanyahu knows he’s guilty,” Gantz said. “Whoever thinks ‘there will be nothing because there was nothing’ should not be afraid to face trial.”
Netanyahu’s former ally and current nemesis, Avigdor Lieberman, also said he would act to prevent Netanyahu from getting immunity. Lieberman, who heads the hard-line Russian immigrant Yisrael Beitenu party, could have given his former boss the seats he needed to form a coalition after both of the elections earlier this year.
“Now it’s clear beyond a doubt: the only thing Netanyahu cared for and continues to care for is immunity,” the former defense minister said.
Along with the request for immunity, Netanyahu has launched an all-out attack on Israel’s judicial institutions and press, accusing them of being left-wing and using illegal means to try to stop him from being reelected.
“There are people who, unlike me, did commit grave crimes and they have lifelong immunity,” he said. “They are just on the right side of the media and the left wing.”
Later he accused Gantz and his co-leader, former finance minister Yair Lapid, of vague crimes but did not give details.
Netanyahu is being criticized for the immunity request even though it is enshrined in Israeli law.
“Democracies around the world now understand that it is best to significantly limit immunity for elected officials,” the Israel Democracy Institute, an Israeli think tank specializing in issues of democracy, responded.
“In Europe there is a tendency to lessen the scope of immunity and not to expand it. In France and Italy for instance, automatic immunity was abandoned in the 1990s and today it is limited to exemption from arrest and imprisonment. It is also important to note that international bodies like the European Union emphasize that immunity is needed specifically in countries where there is real danger of political persecution against members of the opposition.”
It is too early to tell how the immunity request will affect Netanyahu’s election bid. A poll by the institute after the indictments against him found that 35% of Israelis wanted Netanyahu to step down and stand trial.
There was also an idea floated during the last round of post-election coalition negotiations for a unity government between Netanyahu and Gantz. Netanyahu said he would be prime minister for six months and then let Gantz take over for two years while he fought his case in court. If he won, he would then come back for the last 18 months of the government’s term.
Gantz refused, reportedly because he did not trust Netanyahu to step aside as promised.
Another idea that was proposed by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein during the last round of Knesset negotiations was that President Reuven Rivlin would pardon Netanyahu, and that the former prime minister would become the president when Rivlin’s term is up next year.
In 2008, when then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was about to be indicted on corruption charges, Netanyahu insisted he had to resign, which Olmert did. Olmert served 16 months of a 27-month sentence for fraud.
Netanyahu insists he will be Israel’s next prime minister and he still has support from his hard-line base. However, many analysts in Israel say this could be the beginning of the end for Netanyahu.
“Netanyahu knows that the best he can hope for is damage control,” Anshel Pfeffer, a liberal journalist and columnist, wrote in the left-wing Ha’aretz newspaper.
“Few if any politicians have his knack for shifting and shaping media cycles. But he is starting to lose his touch and Kahol Lavan [Gantz’s party] is getting better at dictating events. … Six days ago he won the Likud primary by a landslide and felt he had momentum going into the general election campaign. His plans are already going badly awry,” Pfeffer wrote.