In Depth

Could Benjamin Netanyahu be granted immunity in his corruption trial?

Israeli PM’s request could see corruption prosecution delayed until after next election

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has requested parliamentary immunity from prosecution over charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

 The 70-year-old, Israel’s longest-serving leader, was first charged in November after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit concluded almost three years of investigations in three separate cases.

Netanyahu denies all the charges and has now has submitted an official community request to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. He would need the support of more than half of MPs for immunity to be granted - a move that would probably delay his trial until after the country’s next national election, due to take place on 2 March.

What are the charges against Netanyahu?

The charges brought against the PM last year stem from allegations including “suspicions that he accepted hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of champagne and cigars from billionaire friends, offered to trade favours with a newspaper publisher, and used his influence to help a wealthy telecoms magnate in exchange for favourable coverage on a popular news site”, as This is Money reported at the time.

Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing in all three cases, “and - in Donald Trump style - has previously dismissed the investigations into him as a ‘witch hunt’”, accusing police and state prosecutors of an “attempted coup” against him, says Sky News.

If found guilty, he could face up to ten years in prison and a possible fine for the bribery charges, while fraud and breach of trust carry a sentence of up to three years.

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Why has he asked for immunity?

Members of the Knesset are “not automatically immune from criminal prosecution, but they have the right to request immunity from a special committee of MPs”, The Times reports.

“There is no precedent of a serving prime minister being charged while in office, much less requesting immunity from prosecution,” the newspaper adds.

The Guardian says that normally, a “request for immunity would need to be approved by the parliament’s house committee and then submitted to a full vote”, but the house committee “does not exist because a government was never formed” after Israel’s last election, in September, delivered an inconclusive result.

Even if his request is rejected, under Israeli law, Likud party leader Netanyahu can remain PM while the trial is taking place. He would only be required to resign if he were convicted and that conviction was then upheld through the appeals process - which could take years.

What next?

Court proceedings cannot begin until the question of immunity is settled. According to Haaretz, “by requesting immunity Netanyahu hopes to postpone all of this” until after the March election. 

However, “he knows from all the incessant polling he has carried out that this is a hard sell, even among his right-wing base”, says the Tel Aviv-based newspaper, which adds that his “‘immunity is a cornerstone of democracy’ canard” has not worked as a slogan.

If immunity is ultimately granted, Netanyahu would avoid standing trial for as long as he is a member of parliament, although the Supreme Court would have the power to review the decision and strike it down. 

Criticising Netanyahu’s request, Benny Gantz of the opposition Israel Resilience Party said: “A prime minister is an elected official, first among equals, not a ruler of the people, not above the nation and not above the law and the justice system.”

Former defence minister Avigdor Liberman added that his Yisrael Beiteinu party would vote unanimously against immunity, CNN reports.

“It’s now clear beyond any doubt. All that Netanyahu is interested in is immunity,” Liberman said in a televised statement. “This is what he wakes up with in the morning, this is what he lives, this is what he breathes throughout the day, this is what he goes to bed with. The State of Israel has become a hostage of a private personal problem of Netanyahu.”

The majority of Israelis appear to agree. Polling suggests that around 60% of citizens are against granting the PM immunity from prosecution.

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