Benjamin Netanyahu has thrown the dice in one of his biggest political gambles by asking the Israeli parliament to grant him immunity from corruption charges.
Analysts said the prime minister had caused “significant harm” to public trust by ignoring one of Israel’s founding principles – that everyone is equal before the law.
In November Netanyahu was indicted on charges including bribery and fraud. His pending trial meant potential political allies refused to enter into coalition with him, so Israelis now have to return to the polls in March, the third election in 12 months.
His announcement, made four hours before the deadline on New Year’s Day, means legal proceedings against him will likely stall until after the 2 March vote, when he hopes to overcome a slender lead built up by Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.
“In order to continue to lead Israel to great achievements, I intend to approach the speaker of the Knesset… in order to fulfil my right, my duty and my mission to continue to serve you for the future of Israel,” he said, in a televised address.
Netanyahu used the announcement to yet again claim that he was the victim of a witch-hunt and a conspiracy involving the Israeli media, despite being accused of offering to help one newspaper buy another in return for favourable coverage. He denies any wrongdoing.
Both Gantz and fellow right-winger Avigdor Lieberman said their parties would vote against granting immunity, which could lead to “an indefinite delay” in the legal proceedings against Netanyahu, since Israel does not have term limits for parliamentarian or prime ministers.
Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israel Democracy Institute, said it “would constitute irreparable harm to the principle of equality before the law,” and “significant harm” to public trust if Netanyahu remained in office while indicted on such serious crimes.
“It will be nearly impossible to explain that the prime minister has full trust in the professionalism of the institutions he oversees while he is attacking their credibility in an effort to raise doubts about the charges against him.”
Plesner added that other politicians may soon follow Netanyahu’s lead and also request immunity, meaning that there was now “serious concern that the Knesset will turn into a sanctuary for those seeking to avoid their day in court”.