Netanyahu Withdraws Request for Immunity From Prosecution in Corruption Cases

With hours to go before Knesset vote, Netanyahu opens himself for indictment to be filed with Jerusalem court at any moment ■ 'No one can run a state and at the same time manage three serious criminal cases,' says Gantz

Netanyahu at a conference in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020
Olivier Fitoussi

UPDATE: Indictment against Netanyahu officially filed in court after PM withdraws immunity bid

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday announced he was withdrawing his request for immunity from prosecution in the three corruption cases, in which he is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

The Knesset was slated to convene on Tuesday to vote on the formation of a commitee that would discuss Netanyahu's request. On Sunday, the right-wing bloc of parties backing Netanyahu's bid for premiership announced it would boycott the process, calling it tainted and politicized.

The decision means Israel's attorney general can file the indictment with the Jerusalem District Court at any time, instead of having to wait for the conclusion of immunity deliberations in the Israeli parliament. It also means Netanyahu won't be able seek protection from prosecution again in any of the three cases.

"This is in line with the persecution campaign that the 'Anything but Bibi' camp has waged," the prime minister wrote in a Facebook post. "Instead of grasping the gravity of the hour, and rise above political considerations, they continue to engage in cheap politicking, harming a decisive moment in the history of the country," Netanyahu added, referring to the expected release of U.S. President Donald Trump's Mideast peace plan.

"We will take the time later to shatter all the disproportionate claims made by my detractors," Netanayahu said. "But right now, I will not allow my political opponents to use this matter to interfere with the historic move I am leading."

The peace plan is widely expected to be in broad agreement with Netanyahu's positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has been represented as a boost for his elongated political campaign for re-election.

Netanyahu made his decision public after his chief political rival, Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz – who met with Trump on Monday but decided to skip the release of the peace plan in order to take part in the immunity debate – was already back in Israel.

"Netanyahu will go to trial now, and we must move forward," Gantz said in a statement on Tuesday. "Israelis have a clear choice... No one can run a state and at the same time manage three serious criminal cases for bribery, fraud and breach of trust," he added.

The decision to withdraw his immunity request was also an attempt by the prime minister to mitigate damage to Likud's election campaign. Deliberations on the request were set to provide hours of live footage of Netanyahu's lawyers debating the nature of the evidence collected against him with prosecutors, something Likud was concerned would aid Kahol Lavan and Yisrael Beiteinu's campaigns and destabilize support for Netanyahu among the party's voters.

Regardless, the committee already had a majority against immunity, thus rendering Netanyahu's odds at gaining it virtually obsolete.

Netanyahu filed a request for immunity in the three criminal cases in which he's been charged on January 1.

"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 Likud leader said at the time, in line with his argument that he was being hounded by Israel's justice system.

Netanyahu's opponents used the request to drive home the message that Israel's longest-serving prime minister was guilty, while he described it as a "cornerstone of democracy." In the short-term, the immunity process bought the Likud leader time, especially with parliamentary proceedings stalled by the ongoing political deadlock. 

Although he condemned the idea of ruling on immunity before March 2 as "election propaganda," Knesset speaker and senior Likud member Yuli Edelstein allowed the Knesset to come back from recess and vote on the formation of the House Committee. He argued it was a matter of public trust in the country's institutions.