Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asks legislators for immunity from corruption charges

The move could risk prompting critics to claim that Netanyahu thinks he is above the law, experts say

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published January 2, 2020 12:15PM (EST)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Ronen Zvulun/Pool Photo via AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Ronen Zvulun/Pool Photo via AP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked the Knesset, his nation’s parliament, to grant him immunity from prosecution in three graft cases.

Speaking to the Israeli public on Wednesday, Netanyahu said a proposed immunity bill was meant to prevent “political indictments whose purpose is to impair the will of the people,” claiming "that’s what happened in my case." 

Like President Donald Trump in the U.S., Netanyahu has long argued that people trying to hold him legally accountable are part of the “fake news” and have a liberal agenda. Prosecutors have accused the prime minister of trading favors worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media leaders in return for positive news coverage and illicit gifts.

In response to Netanyahu’s remarks, Benny Gantz, his chief rival in the upcoming national elections, said: “Today, it is clear what we are fighting for. Netanyahu knows he’s guilty.”

Gantz asserted that Israeli voters had to choose between “immunity before all else or the citizens of Israel before all else; between the kingdom of Netanyahu or the state of Israel.”

The request comes as Netanyahu fights for his political survival and prepares for a general election, which is only two months away. That election will be the third held by Israel in nearly a year, with the first two failing to determine whether the incumbent would be re-elected to an unprecedented fifth term.

Experts in Israeli politics believe that Netanyahu took a political risk in making his immunity request, as it could prompt critics to claim that he and his conservative Likud Party believe they are above the law.

This is not the first time that Netanyahu has attempted to implement legal measures which would protect him from prosecution. Last year, after Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit indicted the prime minister on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, Netanyahu began pushing for an immunity bill, which would prevent him from being prosecuted for as long as he served as Israeli prime minister. The current bill would be valid for only one term of Parliament.

As Israel’s prime minister since 2009, Netanyahu has struggled to hold on to the political power he has held without break. He also served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999.

In Israeli politics, prime ministers are elected by a majority of the members of the Knesset, which has 120 members. This means that a minimum of 61 Knesset members have to support a candidate for prime minister in order for he or she to hold office.

During an election in April, Netanyahu and his allies picked up 65 seats compared to 55 seats for Gantz, the Blue and White Party candidate. Yet five supporters from ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties defected over a dispute about whether ultra-Orthodox men were exempted from military service, which is mandatory for all Israelis.

During a second election in September, the two parties virtually broke even, with the Blue and White Party winning 32 seats compared to 31 seats for the Likud Party. Because neither party was able to create a governing coalition, a third round of elections was scheduled for this year.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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