Netanyahu requests immunity from parliament for corruption affair

Netanyahu requests immunity from parliament for corruption affair
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem on January 1. Abir Sultan / EPA

Benjamin Netanyahu is the first incumbent Prime Minister of Israel to face charges of corruption. Now he wants to secure immunity from parliament. It could take months before a vote is taken.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is accused of corruption, wants to be protected from law enforcement by Parliament. He applied to the President of the Knesset for immunity. This was announced by a government spokesman.

The 70-year-old head of government had previously announced this step at a press conference on Wednesday and described his approach as “lawful”. He chooses this way “to serve you further, for the future of Israel”. He would prove his innocence in court. “I want to lead Israel for many more years to achieve historical success”.

The Justice Department had announced in November that the 70-year-old head of government should be charged with fraud and infidelity and bribery. It is the first time in the history of Israel that an incumbent prime minister is charged. Netanyahu spoke of an attempted coup and sharply criticized Israel’s judiciary. He accused the police of putting pressure on witnesses.

The allegations against Netanyahu are about suspicion of influencing the media, allegedly crooked deals with companies and luxury gifts from friends of business in return for political favours. If convicted of bribery, Netanyahu faces up to ten years in prison.

Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit had sent the indictment against Netanyahu to the President of Parliament on December 2. After that, Netanyahu had 30 days to apply for immunity. Without the request, the indictment could have been filed with the competent court in Jerusalem after the deadline. With the immunity application, however, the procedure is now on hold.

No majority in the Knesset

Opposition leader Benny Gantz announced that his centre-right party Blau-Weiss would do everything in parliament to prevent immunity for Netanyahu. “Nobody is above the law in Israel”, said Gantz. He accused Netanyahu of only being interested in his personal fate and not in the future of the State of Israel. “Netanyahu knows that he is guilty”.

Defense Secretary Avigdor Lieberman said: “The State of Israel has been held hostage by Netanyahu’s personal problem”. Its ultra-right-wing Israel Beitenu (Our House Israel) party will not vote for immunity. It is clear that the head of government in the Knesset currently has no majority.

Political stalemate

Under normal circumstances, a parliamentary committee would have to decide on the immunity issue, and then a Knesset vote would have to take place. In Israel, however, there has been a transitional government headed by Netanyahu for about a year, and the parliament has limited capacity to act. After two parliamentary elections, no new government was formed in 2019 due to a stalemate.

Amir Fuchs from the Israeli Democracy Institute says that despite the political transition situation, there is no legal obstacle to the formation of the responsible committee. However, there is currently no parliamentary majority for it. Without the committee, there would be no further steps in the Netanyahu case.

Supreme Court should decide

Some lawyers doubt that Netanyahu may be reappointed to form a government despite the charges against him, and have therefore appealed to the Supreme Court. Three judges from the Israeli Supreme Court began examining these reservations on Tuesday. When they announced their decision, they did not tell.

Netanyahu wrote on Tuesday in the online service Twitter: “I do not imagine for a moment that Israel’s Supreme Court falls into this trap. In a democracy, the people alone decide who can govern and nobody else”.

According to Israeli law, a prime minister only has to resign after a final sentence. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said Tuesday: “I think we need to protect the elected against the possibility of removing them against the will of the people”.

Despite his corruption scandal, Netanyahu had been clearly confirmed as the leader of the right-wing Likud party last week. In the internal party vote, the 70-year-old politician received 72.5 per cent of the vote.

According to a poll by Israeli television, 51 per cent of Israelis are against an application by the head of government for immunity, while only 33 per cent support the move. Faced with criticism that he wanted to shirk responsibility, Netanyahu said on Sunday: “Immunity is not against democracy, immunity is a cornerstone of democracy”.