Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that he has decided to officially request immunity from prosecution in the three criminal cases in which he has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
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"I intend to ask the Knesset speaker to let me implement my right, my duty and my mission to continue serving you for the future of Israel," Netanyahu said at press conference in Jerusalem. "There are people, who unlike me, did commit grave crimes and they have life-long immunity. They are just on the right side of the media and the left wing," he added.
The prime minister noted in his address that "by law, immunity is temporary. It is cancelled as soon as the Knesset that gave it is dissolved. By law, there is no possibility to avoid trial."
"I intend to go to court in order to crush the fabricated tales against me," he continued. "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."
According to Israeli law, the Knesset House Committee is to discuss his request and should it be approved, the request will need to pass a vote by the Knesset plenum.
However, since a House Committee has not been appointed since the April general election, and is not expected to be assembled before the upcoming March election, the discussion will only take place in several months. Until the committee makes a decision, an indictment against Netanyahu can't be handed officially to the court.
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'Netanyahu knows he's guilty'
Immediately after Netanyahu spoke, Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman stated that he would act to prevent Netanyahu from getting immunity. "Now it's clear beyond a doubt: The only thing Netanyahu cared and continues to care for is immunity," he said. The former defense minister, who emerged as kingmaker after Israel's two election rounds in April and in September, announced that his party "won't be part of the immunity coalition. All of us as one will vote against immunity for Netanyahu."
Lieberman slammed Netanyahu, adding that "the State of Israel has become a prisoner of Netanyau, held hostage by his own personal problem. He doesn't care about left, right, religious or secular. The only thing Netanyahu cares for is [gaining an] immunity coalition. All the rest is nonsense."
Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, Netanyahu's main rival, responded to Netanyahu's decision to request immunity in his own press conference. "Netanyahu knows he's guilty," Gantz said. "Whoever thinks 'there is nothing because there was nothing' [Netanyahu's repeated statement regarding the charges against him] should not be afraid to face trial."
Gantz added that the premier "is endangering the values on which we were all raised, that every man is equal before the law. I never imagined to myself that we will reach a day when the prime minister of Israel will avoid facing the law and the justice system."
Gantz added that if Netanyahu succeeds in establishing a government after the election, "it will be an extreme immunity government."
Long legal process ahead
The Knesset may grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution in all three cases – in which he is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust – or only for some of the cases. If Netanyahu's request for immunity is approved by the house committee and Knesset plenum, the attorney general as well as civilian parties may petition to the High Court.
The immunity process, a necessary step before beginning a trial, could take a long time. The legal process in court will only begin after the Knesset completes its handling of the immunity request – and the expected appeals to the High Court on the matter. In addition, it will be possible to delay the legal process by various means, such as requests for evidentiary discovery. If the State Prosecutor’s Office refuses to hand over the requested materials, this too could have to be adjudicated in a separate proceeding. The greater the defendant’s interest in delaying the trial, the longer the process could take – and discovery requests could take up to a year.
Over the weekend, Netanyahu said that "immunity from prosecution is not evading trial" and is "a cornerstone of democracy," despite in the past having publicly belittled the possibility that he would seek immunity – and even staunchly denying he would request it.
In an interview with Channel 12 News before April's election, Netanyahu was asked if he would try to advance a law, or any other step, to avert being put on trial. "What? No way! The answer is no," Netanyahu answered, adding that what would put an end to any possibility of a trial were “the facts themselves.”
On Tuesday, High Court justices dismissed a petition seeking to block Netanyahu from forming another government, saying it was irrelevant to discuss such an option ahead of the actual vote.