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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Image Credit: AP

Occupied Jerusalem: Fighting for his future, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Wednesday asked parliament to grant him immunity from prosecution in three graft cases, a rare and contentious step that critics say violates the principle of equality before the law.

The immunity request is the latest twist in the political and legal drama that has paralyzed the Israeli government.

Long famed for his survival skills, Netanyahu is taking the risky move to fend off charges that imperil his legacy and could eventually land him in prison.

But the effort also threatens to further polarize a divided nation and prolong the political deadlock that has left the country without a fully functioning government for nearly a year.

Submitted barely three hours before the legal deadline, the immunity request could delay for months the criminal cases against Netanyahu, who faces a general election in two months, the country’s third in less than a year.

If it is approved, immunity could keep him out of court for as long as he remains a member of parliament.

Netanyahu was indicted in November on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He has denied any wrongdoing.

He had kept the country guessing about his next move, apparently wary that an immunity request could endanger his reelection prospects and that of his conservative Likud party by fueling accusations that he was putting himself above the law.

Will his bid work?

It is not clear whether Netanyahu could secure a parliamentary majority to grant him immunity.

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing Israel Beiteinu party that used to be allied with Netanyahu’s Likud, and whose votes Netanyahu would need, said Wednesday night that he would not support Netanyahu’s bid for immunity.

Navot, the constitutional law expert, said the parliamentary process of granting immunity is quasi-judicial, requiring evidence to back up the arguments of the person requesting it, and takes place under judicial review.

It would be hard to prove that law enforcement authorities acted in bad faith in the Netanyahu cases, she said, given the caution that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit had shown in handling the indictment.

Mandelblit was appointed by Netanyahu.

Granting Netanyahu immunity, Navot said, would be “a fatal blow to the rule of law and equality before the law.”

No lawmaker or minister has been granted immunity since the law was amended in 2005.

What is Netanyahu accused of?

Netanyahu is accused of trading official favors worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media moguls for illicit gifts of cigars, Champagne and jewelry, as well as positive news coverage.

The charges have dented Netanyahu’s aura of invincibility, but he has bounced back before.

Netanyahu faces corruption charges. Image Credit: Gulf News

In the 2006 general election, he led Likud to a disastrous result, with the party winning only 12 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

Netanyahu returned Likud to power just three years later, though, and he has remained in office ever since.

In July he surpassed Israel’s founding leader, David Ben-Gurion, as the country’s longest-serving premier.

Netanyahu had zigzagged for months on the question of immunity, aware of its unpopularity and the pitfalls of appearing to evade justice.

He dismissed the idea before the April election, to avoid handing the opposition damaging campaign fodder. But this week, as the deadline for his request approached, he declared that immunity was a “foundation stone of democracy.”

How does immunity work in Israel?

Many countries, including Israel, have immunity laws to protect lawmakers’ freedom of action and speech in the course of their parliamentary duties.

In Israel, a lawmaker can also seek immunity, under certain circumstances, for alleged crimes not committed in the line of parliamentary duty, for as long as the accused is a member of parliament.

The circumstances listed in the law include an indictment that is not drafted in good faith or is discriminatory, to protect lawmakers from politically motivated prosecution.

Immunity that defends a lawmaker’s freedom of speech is indeed “a constitutional institution that is very important,” said Suzie Navot, a professor of constitutional law at the Striks School of Law near Tel Aviv. “But that is not the kind of immunity that Netanyahu is talking about.”

Under Israel’s immunity law, which was amended in 2005, lawmakers no longer have automatic immunity but must seek it from a parliamentary body known as a House Committee, whose decision must then be ratified by a simple majority in parliament.

The current, caretaker government has not formed a House Committee, and there may not be one to discuss a request by Netanyahu for weeks or months after the March election, until a new government can be formed. Court proceedings against Netanyahu would be frozen until any immunity request could be heard.

Positioning himself as ‘victim’

In an effort to limit the political damage, Netanyahu played down the effect of his request.

Delivering a statement live on television during prime time, he insisted it was a “temporary” measure that would be valid for only one term of parliament.

He said immunity was meant to prevent “political indictments whose purpose is to impair the will of the people,” adding, “Unfortunately, that’s what happened in my case.”

He has long argued that the criminal investigations against him are the result of a witch hunt led by elitist forces trying to oust him through “fake news” in the liberal media and through the courts.

Longest serving prime minister

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, is running for a fourth consecutive term in an election set for March 2.

The country has no limits on the number of terms a prime minister or lawmaker can serve.

The campaign, largely focused on Netanyahu’s fate, was already expected to be divisive. Two earlier elections, in April and September, ended inconclusively, with neither Netanyahu, nor his chief opponent, Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party, able to muster the majority needed to form a viable government.

What did his political rival Benny Gantz say?

“I never imagined we would see the day when a prime minister of Israel would avoid standing before the law and the courts,” Gantz said in a televised statement immediately after Netanyahu’s announcement.

“Today it is clear what we are fighting for,” Gantz said.

“Netanyahu knows he’s guilty.”